"Pick a number," invited Bruce. "Any number."

Buzz sneered and his friends gathered around him in a pack. I scrambled to my feet in alarm. This whole situation was rapidly turning into a nightmare with Bruce at the center of it. How in the name of God was I going to protect him from this horde of jackels? I *hate* using my powers serepticiously. It feels too blasted much like cheating. But, at the moment, I couldn't see any help for it. Not if I was going to somehow save Bruce from a bad beating.

I was wrong about that.

I was all set to use a tiny blast of heat vision to melt their Reeboks to the sidewalk when Buzz stalked in for the kill.

And Bruce ....

... *moved* ....

I can't really describe it. It was like watching the wind howl or a river flow rushing to the sea. I've never seen anything like it. And that's saying a lot. I was frightened for Bruce, at first. Buzz was a lot bigger than he was and he had to outweigh the smaller Bruce by at lest 30 pounds. One of those huge, beefy guys; all muscle and no brain. But for a guy his size Buzz was fast; really fast.

But not as fast as Bruce.

Buzz charged forward like a bull. And like a matador (did you know that that name means "killer" in Spanish?), Bruce stood his ground and waited. Then, at I swear the last possible instant, he stepped casually aside, as if he were in no great hurry about it. I knew I should do something, but I seemed to be riveted to the spot like a magnet clamped to iron. I don't think I could have moved to greet the Second Coming. I just stared, lost in the beauty of those fluid, graceful movements.

And it *was* beautiful in its own dark and strangely compelling way. Violence usually is, I've discovered. Just as true beauty is always a little frightening. And Bruce ...

Bruce had *both*.

Bruce never hit Buzz. That was the most frightening thing, I decided later when I could think. He just ... touched .... him. At first he let Buzz stumble and bellow about, playing with him like a cat. And always with that same cold, tiny smile stretching his lips. I'm never going to forget that smile. It'll haunt my nightmares until I die. Buzz never even came close to touching Bruce. He was way too slow and clumsy for that.

And when Bruce got tired, or perhaps bored, with taunting Buzz he began to *touch* him. Mind you there was almost no force that I could detect behind those skilled hands as they wandered over Buzz' straining body. None. But they left pain in their wake whereever they paused. I don't think they missed a single major nerve cluster anywhere except, *maybe* the one on the bottom of Buzz' feet. By the time it was over Buzz was a mass of quivering, feebly stirring pain whimpering on the sidewalk.

And Bruce was still smiling.

That was when Buzz' buds found their courage at long last. Did I mention that Buzz' friends are even stupider than he is? I should have. Because they surely proved it then. Out came the chains and the knives, then, and the ... the ...

Oh dear God.

A gun. Clutched right there in Donny Cadswaller's shaky, terrified hand. Some sort of cobbled together zip-gun right out of a bad 50's gang movie.

Pointing at me.

"Call off you're guard dog, Kent!" Donny shouted in a tremulous voice, roiling with his fear. I used a quick touch of heat vision and Donny dropped the gun with a yelp of pain. It went off harmlessly, expending its single bullet with a loud bang that seemed to echo forever on that peaceful Smallville street.

Bruce froze. His knees seemed to give way as if the weight of his tall body were suddenly too much for his legs to bear. He fell to the street like a tree crashing to earth at last beneath a persistant woodsman's axe. At first I thought that he might have been hit by the bullet, God forbid. It wasn't until Bruce covered his ears with his hands to shut out the continual echoing roar of gunfire that his pinched and frightened face told me reverbarated through the labyrinth of his mind that I knew the truth. For a few seconds he looked very much younger than his 16 years. So young and helpless; lost and frightened.

Predictably enough, the rest of Buzz' gang moved in, surrounding the kneeling Bruce.

And Bruce ...

Bruce just *exploded* ...

If there was an element of dark ballet and grace, of feline teasing, about Bruce's "fight" with Buzz there was none of that here and now. Oh, the fluidity and grace were still there. That was in his bones, I think. But there remained nothing of playfulness about this. This ... this was a slaughter. Every movement brought blood and howls of agony in their grim wake. Not a single motion was wasted, not a blow misplaced. In a fury of striking lethal weapons that were parts of his body, his flashing hands and his flying feet, Bruce brought down his prey one by one to lie still and bloody on the sidewalks of tranquil Smallville, Kansas. There's no way I could have stopped him without letting him hurt himself in the process. Horrified, my x-ray vision revealed a good many shattered bones but nothing much more serious than that.

"Bruce, no!" I cried. "Stop it! For God's sake, stop it!"

For a moment he just stood there, chest heaving, angry heart pumping, breathe whistling between his tightly gritted teeth, still pale white with rage beneath his golden tan. Then slowly-oh so very slowly-his clenched fists relaxed at his side and he was calm again.

He was *Bruce* again.

"I don't like guns," he said softly.

Before I knew it, I had quite a job on my hands explaining to Chief Parker just what had happened. Fortunately, Clark Kent is an all around good kid; everybody knows that. The perfect, dutiful son and student. And never, ever a liar. And, of course, it didn't hurt that Buzz and company were about as close as Smallville gets to juvenile delinquents. Close enough for governemtn work, anyway. By the time I was done George Parker was looking me over with almost parental concern.

"You ok, Clark?" he probed. "Ol' Jon would never forgive me if I let anything happen to his boy!"

I blushed and nodded. "I'm just fine, sir," I assured him, putting his worries to rest. "My friend Al here kept them from hurting me." I glanced at Bruce with admiration. He remained as still as a statue. Chief Parker lifted one dubious eyebrow, eyeing the blood spattered Bruce with trepidation and no small amount of suspicion. But, thank God, he didn't say anything. George Parker tipped his hat back on his forehead and whistled low between his teeth.

"Yeah," he said slowly, "I can *see* that."

Bruce ignored him. The Police Chief of Smallville gestured at one of his Deputies. "Bob you and Roy take those kids to emergency at Smallville General. Stay with them and make sure they're all right. Notify their parents, too, will you?" Bob Singer and Roy Blaine began to carefully follow their orders, loading the unconscious bodies into the back of their respective Police cruisers.

"Oh, yeah," said Chief Parker with a smile, almost as an after thought. "Tell them that they're under arrest for for assualt. With Intent. Illegal pocession of a firearm. Disturbing the peace. Creating a public nuisance. And anything else you can think of that might stick, got it?"

He turned back to me and lay a fatherly hand on my shoulder. "You gonna be all right, son? You sure?" I nodded and tried to look shaken but not stirred. It wasn't too hard, really. Trust me. Parker patted me on the shoulder and peered askance at Pa's beat up old Chevy.

"How you getting back home?" he inquired solicitously. His eyes came to rest on the broken glasses in my shirt pocket. "Can you drive without them spectacles, Clark?"

"I can make it home all right, sir," I told him. "And I've got a spare pair there. If I have any trouble I'll pull over and Al can drive the rest of the way, I promise."

The policeman nodded. "Just you be careful, son." he cautioned. "Just you be careful, now."

What a mess. There would be statements and a trial and testimony and .... I didn't let myself think about it. At that moment I wanted nothing in the Universe more than just to get out of there. Just to go home. Bruce and I piled into the truck and I took off at a sedate speed. No sense taking chances, right? I breathed a definite sigh of relief.

I should have known better.

We were hardly seated with the doors firmly closed and all safely buckled up when Bruce hit me with it.

"How long have you known?" he asked softly.

Oh, Lord. What was I supposed to say? I'd hoped, in vain it looked like, that he hadn't heard my gaping faux pas. No such luck. He'd heard all right. I decided to take it as a good sign that he was so matter of fact about it. He didn't seem angry or put off at all. In fact, he looked almost relieved. I was beginning to learn how to read the bare signs he gave, mirroring his feelings.

"Since last night," I acknowledged. "There was a TV news report on WLEX."

He nodded silently and crossed his hands over his chest. "So what are you planning to do about it?" he demanded to know.

What could I do? Tell him to leave? My options were kind of limited here. I glanced at him out of the corner of my eye. Still calm and relaxed as far as I could tell. Waiting. I sighed.

"What do you *want* me to do about it?" I asked.

"Nothing," came the quiet answer.

Nodding agreement, I smiled. "Nothing it is, then," I assured him. I was pretty sure he wanted to smile back. But he didn't.

"Um - did you find Superboy?" I asked, trying for a quick change of subject.

Bruce frowned. "No, I didn't," he answered me levelly, clearly unhappy. Unnoticed, I breathed a sigh of relief.

"Not *yet*," Bruce amended softly. My heart sank somewhere down in the vacinity of my ankles.

"But I will," he vowed. "I will."

Somehow it never occured to me to doubt him. Not even once. Bruce was like that, I was coming to discover. If he said it, then it was a done deal. I forced myself to remain calm, my hands gripping the wheel only a little more tightly than I liked. Bruce remained silent. But somehow, I didn't think he was idle. I could almost see him thinking, fitting the pieces together; watching the known facts collide, giving quick birth to other conjectures. I could almost hear Bruce thinking.

'Superboy was first seen here in Smallville. He's seen most often in Smallville, in fact, as opposed to anywhere else. The City claims this is home town. Very likely, then, he's a resident. He's about my age. Medium height. About 160-170 lbs or so. Dark haired. Blue eyes like mine.'

I gulped. Well, no Bruce, not *quite* like yours ... Thank God.

'Most often he arrives from the east, the outlaying farm district ... '

Good Lord. I'd never before realized just how careless I'd been. How transparent. For most of my life I've played games with Lana and all her endless tricks trying to prove that Clark Kent is Superboy. I've even enjoyed them in a perverse sort of way.

But Bruce was no Lana.

My secret identity could be in real danger, here, I realized with a start. What would happen to Ma and Pa , then, I wondered? What would happen to the life we'd make for ourselves nestled safely here in the heart of America? I didn't let myself think about it. But I was going to have to, wasn't I? I had no idea how to go about dissuading Bruice from his appointed course. I got the idea in my head that *that* might not be an easy thing to do. And, somehow, I just knew that tricking Bruce was going to be just a little harder than pulling the wool over Lana's bright jade green eyes.

And not nearly as much fun, either.

What to do?

I thought about that all the way back home and long into the evening as the sun settled gently in the west turning the world all scarlet and gold in its wake. I could tell that Ma and Pa were worried. It didn't take them long to see that something was dreadfully wrong. But I had no real opportunity to talk to either of them about what was on my mind. When we got home, Ma took one gander the two of us, me with my broken glasses and ripped shirt, Bruce looking like he'd just stepped out of a slaughter house, and herded us beneath her wings like a hen with only two chicks.

Dinner that night was painfully silent.

And it was some of Ma's best cooking, too. That pot roast was juicy and tender enough to eat with a fork. But I don't think anybody enjoyed it much. A real shame, that.

It was almost a relief when Bruce excused himself and climbed the stairs to his borrowed bed. And I think he knew it. We all watched him go, then gathered on the porch.

"Family conference," orderd Pa.

In the end, we didn't decide anything, not really. But, nevertheless, I felt a lot better. My family's the most important thing I have. Without their support to anchor me, I'd be adrift with out much hope of ever finding shore. But with them, there isn't anything I can't face. Even this.

We talked for a long time. Upstairs, Bruce was fast asleep when I left on my nightly patrol of Smallville. I spent a good deal of time that night tracking down Lex and returning him to the Small County Juvenile Correctional Facility after another attempted escape, so I was not in the best of humor as I pulled the blankets up over me and retired for my usual nightly half hour or so of sleep.. Lex is a sad part of my life. One I wish I could do something about.

I floated into the arms of Morpheus thinking about that.

I'm not sure how long I slept. I don't think it was long, though. I was startled awake prematurely by an unfamiliar noise. A rather loud one to my sensitive ears.

But even without my supersenses this would have awakened me. The low moaning coming from the other small bed in my room stabbed at me, jarring me back to complete wakefulness. By the time I rose and made my way to the other bed the keening sound emerging from the thrashing figure on the bed was getting louder. I was afraid that it might wake Ma or Pa, so I guess that explains what happened next.

Actually, I don't *have* to sleep. Not more than the few minutes a night that it takes to dream, anyway. Everybody has to do that. Even me. But otherwise? I never get tired so I don't need to rest. Personally, I think sleep is a big waste of time. But it makes Ma feel better when I do it, so ... Or at least pretend to do it, at any rate. Ma, God love her, worries a lot if I don't. "A growing boy needs his rest, Clark," she admonishes me. I just smile. Then I usually yawn and stretch, make my way upstairs to my bedroom, and read quietly until dawn. After all, I don't need light to see by, do I?

Even so, I've had a few nightmares in my time and this looked to be a bad one. Bruce was tucked into a tight ball of pain with his arms covering his dark head, scant protection from God's knows what, all tangled in the sheets, sweating even in the early moring chill. I think he was trying to scream, but all that could make its terrified way past his constricted throat was a tiny whimper.

I sat down carefully on the edge of the bed. Gingerly, I reached out to touch him, to offer what succor and comfort I could. But I sure wasn't prepared for what happened then, I've got to admit. Bruce threw his arms around my neck, breathing in great gulping gasps and sobbed like a broken hearted little boy. Unbidden, my arms encicled him and I held him tightly as he wept. I think he called me "Alfred".

Then, as quickly as it began, it was over. He jerked himself out of my embrace and moved as far away as he could get on the small bed. He stared at the wall with it's bright sun gold wallpaper for a long time. Gradually, his breathing returned to normal and his racing heart abated. That's when I noticed that his eyes weren't focused. Biofeedback, I realized, and wondered where he'd learned to do that. Like a lot of things about Bruce, I was likely never to know the answer to that. I lay a hand on his shoulder and he flinched away fom my touch. Slowly, I lowered my hand.

"If you want to talk about it, I'll listen."

He still wouldn't look at me, wouldn't meet my eyes. From the rock hard set of his jaw and the screaming tenseness of his neck, I could tell that he was drowning in humiliation for his supposed weakness.

"There's nothing to talk about," he said, so calmly, so levelly, that it frightened me. "They died. One week after my birthday my parents took me to see a film. 'The Mark Of Zorro'. I loved the movie. I wanted to be Zorro. On the way back to our car they were shot and killed by a mugger. I saw it happen. I was six years old."

I closed my eyes. Dear God. When I was six years old I was playing tag in the blue Kansas skies with eagles. When I was six years old I was learning when and how to plant crops at Pa's side in the fields; learning to love nurturing the earth and her bounty.

Bruce, it looks like, was learning quite a different lesson.

But I knew about pain and loss, too.

At my side, my hands knotted themselves into hard fists.

The summer of a boy's fifteenth year is a golden, magical time. He teeters on the brink of young manhood; by turns joyously leaping and then creeping cautiously toward that shining prize, almost afraid to reach it at last. His body changes and the world changes around him, becoming a complex and mysterious yet alluring thing. I was no different.

Not then, anyway.

My dreams were full of Lana Lang's flame red hair, her emerald green eyes, like any teenaged boy in his right mind. Her bright smile, the touch of her hand on mine when she retrieved her school books I carried. They all took on a glorious new meaning, now. I blushed and stammered a lot and Ma smiled a lot, watching me. Hay rides under a huge glowing Hunter's Moon ... the Spring Dance ...

I still remember the exact moment when it all came crashing down.

If I'd noticed that Pa was unusually silent and thoughtful I didn't pay much attention. I was too happy. In the barn, early of a gathering morning, I was milking Bessie our dependable old milk cow. Smiling, I was looking forward to fudging a little and taking a sip or two of the warm, creamy white milk straight from the pail. Milk is always better fresh. I think I was probably ten before I ever tasted milk from a bottle, bought from a store. I patted Bessie's rump, she mooed and swished her tail with contentment as I grasped her teats and spurted foamy milk into my waiting pail.

I knew that Pa was watching me from the doorway, of course. It's kinda hard to sneak up on me. He snatched off his round spectacles and began to polish them on his shirt sleeve. That was my first clue about what was to come. Pa has a nervous habit of doing that; polishing his glasses. It's usually a sign of unhappiness, something that troubles him mightily. He held the immaculate lenses up at arms length, peering through them squint-eyed to check for any smudges he'd missed. He had't missed any because there were none there in the first place.

Slowly, reluctantly, as if he were still seaching desperately for a reason to keep something painful at a distance, he slid his glasses back onto his nose and spoke. I must have gripped Bessie's teat a little too hard because she bawled and fussed at me. I'm usually much more careful than that about how I touch things. For me the world is a fragile place, chocked full of breakable things. And breakable people. Reflexively, I released my hold on Bessie and she quieted. In fact, that barn got so quiet it scared me. Streaky, Ma's old tom cat, slipped up and dipped his nose into the milk, stealing a march on me. Greedy gut. When he tries that I most often chuckle, then spurt him in the face with a stream of milk. He purrs, licking his whiskers and preening, rubbing against my ankles.

Not today.

"Clark? Son?"

I looked up. The fear in both our eyes was an even match.

And that's how I found out I wasn't a person.

End, Part Two

Part 3