Well, back more or less as I expected – though the penultimate scene went on a bit longer than I intended because Clark and Lois are fun. Also, I was unsure of how I should stitch together which scenes. Anyhow, a relatively light chapter, with both moderately serious things and very normal things. Actually, it features a lot of teenage anxieties and issues, which are among the most normal things in the world (even if they're not the most normally expressed).

Oh, and yes, I have seen Thor: Love and Thunder. Better action scenes than Ragnarok (arguably the best since Winter Soldier), well-executed, but a bit samey in tone from Ragnarok. Letting the hot air out of the Thor franchise was great in Ragnarok, and fairly good here, but a third time would not be the charm. Solo performances great, plot good, could have done with another 15 minutes to half an hour to really flesh it out (Jane and Gorr both needed more screentime). Overall, 7.5/8 out of 10.

After the sparring session was done, there were definite signs of progress. It was true that Harry was predominantly right-sided, but wielding multiple power-sets, especially simultaneously splitting his focus across multiple uses of telekinesis had ensured that necessity was the mother of invention.

The father, meanwhile, had been the Red Room's disinclination to allow a perfectly good murder weapon to go to waste. Combined with their willingness to override natural inclinations via extensive reprogramming and training, and you had someone who was at least ambi-comfortable, if not totally ambidextrous. While Harry still preferred his right hand, and further preferred to have his left free to wield magic, direct telekinesis, or, indeed, demonstrate some of the finer points of hand to hand combat, he had therefore taken fairly well to the two-blade technique.

That being said, Sif noted critically, he did still sometimes seem a little surprised to find a short sword in his left hand, and had to consciously focus on its use, otherwise he slipped back into the single blade forms that had so far served him well. That would change with time. As, hopefully, would the "I am not left-handed" jokes.

As introductions went, it was encouraging, and Sif had to admit that she was genuinely impressed by his sword-skill. Fandral was not wrong, and justly proud of his student. While Asgard's youngest Prince was no master yet, he was well on course to achieve that mastery within a century.

By Asgardian standards, where combat was both a practical skill and a form of high art, and the likes of Thor – and, indeed, Sif herself – were still considered to be in their early prime, that was extraordinary. By necessarily lower mortal standards (which as both Sif and Fandral knew from their own teacher, was not always the same as human), he would be an acknowledged master by his twenties, if he maintained this trajectory.

She said as much, and she was abruptly reminded of how very young he was. Initially, he slumped slightly in disappointment that he wasn't doing better. Then, on receiving the context of how young a century was in Asgardian terms, how remarkable this progression rate was, he practically glowed. In fact, she was pretty sure that there had been a little bit of literal glowing around the edges of vision.

"I would expect nothing less," Uhtred said warmly, clapping Harry on the shoulder and drawing an only slightly theatrical wheeze. "Your skills have progressed rapidly, Harry."

"Very much so," Diana agreed.

"Your form is excellent, mon cher," Jean-Paul said, the lascivious undertone fairly cursory, and got firm nods from both of the others.

"You should be proud," Diana said.

At that, Harry's lips twisted. "One of the few things I should be proud of, these days," he murmured.

Uhtred looked puzzled, while Diana patted his shoulder sympathetically. Jean-Paul, meanwhile, narrowed his eyes, trying to read Harry's face, before, like, Uhtred, turning an enquiring look on Diana. Sif, for her part, was as bemused as anyone.

"Hermione discovered her parentage," Diana explained, then, after a significant pause, added, "and that Harry knew."

"Parentage?" Uhtred echoed, puzzled.

"She's adopted," Harry said flatly. "Her… birth mother, is Wanda. She gave Hermione up because it wasn't safe. The same reason she didn't raise me."

Sif traded a look with Fandral, whose eyebrows had shot up. This had not been part of their briefings about their Prince's circle of friends and associates. Since the compiler of said briefings had been Loki, who had singled the girl in question out for tutelage, that was significant. Had he not known? No, she dismissed that immediately. Had it been relevant? Arguably – though, she had to admit, no more than Wanda's own ties to Harry, perhaps even less. She resolved to inquire later.

"Surely such a discovery is cause for celebration," Uhtred said, brow wrinkling. "Lady Maximoff is a sorceress of great power and a heroine of wide renown, and such a reunion of family so long parted, is it not a good thing?"

"I'd have thought so," Harry said. "However, I am not Hermione, Uhtred, and neither are you. Hermione's views of Wanda are… complicated."

Sif winced slightly. She knew that tone of old, mostly from Loki. It usually concealed a significant understatement.

"She feels abandoned," Diana said softly.

"Among other things," Harry said, nodding. "She also thinks I'm the favourite, the one Wanda actually wanted. Or so people tell me."

"That is…" Uhtred began indignantly, before deflating. Uhtred, Sif recalled, was part of a family of at least moderate renown, and the youngest of that family, at that. "… not true," he concluded weakly. "Surely not."

Harry did not answer. He looked like he wasn't sure himself – and not happy about it.

"Perhaps not intentionally, Master Ullrson," Fandral said soberly. "But what is true and what is believed to be true can be two very different things."

"Discovery of unexpected heritage, unexpected adoption, can throw even the best of us," Sif said, remembering Loki's reaction to his discovery that he was a Jotun by birth. It had been… extreme. Though given the circumstances, and looking back at it, she had to sadly conclude that his reaction should not have been a surprise, even if it had been to all of them at the time. "Everything that is believed to be true, the most fundamental sense of who you are, is shaken, if not proved entirely false."

"And unlike, say, me, Hermione didn't have any reason to want anything to be different," Harry said. "Though, frankly, I think the timing bothered her more." He grimaced. "Also the lies."

"You lied to her about it?" Jean-Paul asked, without judgement.

"He said nothing of it," Diana said.

"Yes, and where are you getting this from?" Harry asked, before stopping and smiling sourly. "Ah. Ginny. I suppose that getting her a magic-proofed phone was going to have some unexpected side-effects…"

Diana folded her arms and levelled a severe look at him. It carried particular impact these days. For one thing, Harry was not the only one who had gone through a growth spurt. While she was not quite his height, she was more than able to look him in the eye.

"Yes," she said definitely, an implicit challenge in her voice. "It did."

Harry grimaced and waved it away. "Fine," he said. "I didn't tell her. I withheld information. Wanda asked me to, and I respected her wishes. And yes, it's been pointed out to me that I screwed up, and I should at least have pushed Wanda to tell her. And yes, I will apologise."

"You should," Diana said. "Also, you should know that her grandfather paid a visit."

Harry blinked. "Erik?" he said. "He… well, I suppose I shouldn't be surprised. Between Wanda and me, there's plenty of reasons for him to have connected the dots." He paused. "Erik. At Hogwarts. Probably in view of my classmates. Oh dear."

"Is this a bad thing?" Uhtred asked.

"Well, not necessarily, he's visited before," Harry said. "But if anyone figures out who he is, maybe." At Uhtred's continued look of bemusement, he sighed. "Erik, Magneto, is feared and with good reason. His power is part of it, skill too – he might be as strong as dad is, or thereabouts, and he's good enough that he could take me with the equivalent of one hand tied behind his back. But it's more than that. He's reformed these days, but he used to be the kind of monster that other monsters were scared of. He wasn't a hero that they were afraid would bring them to justice, he was a nightmare made of cold rage and burning ambition, one that would destroy everything between him and what he wanted. If he decided you were dead, then usually, that was it: he'd just drop out of the sky one day and tear down your world."

He looked Uhtred in the eye.

"You've seen me on the edge," he said. "When I was on the verge of becoming something vicious, insane… evil. Remember that? Well, it was things like that that got people, good people, saying, 'he could be the next Magneto'. Now, imagine if I hadn't pulled, or been pulled, back from that edge. Imagine if I'd jumped over the edge. Imagine if I'd jumped into the darkness, feet first. Well, Magneto did, and he stayed that way for the best part of thirty years."

He smiled wryly.

"What I'm saying is that I really, really hope none of them worked out who he is."

"None to my knowledge," Diana said offhand. "Other than your friend, Ron. He was present at the conversation."

"Well, could be worse," Harry said. "Ron's got the courage to, I don't know, not turn into a puddle of terror around Erik, and he's Hermione's friend, mine too, so Erik probably likes him already. Also, they both like chess, so that helps." He looked back at the sparring ring suddenly, as if struck by thought. "Sif, you're the Goddess of War, so you might be one of the best people to ask… do you know what Carol's shield, or whatever it really is, can do? Because I think she'd appreciate knowing."

Sif nodded her approval. Any warrior should understand their weapon and its uses, from the simplest stick to the most complex conceptual-manipulator.

"I understand most of its functions well enough," she said. "The majority were designed by your grandfather and its makers to be unlocked over a period of time, as Lady Carol adjusted to her weapon, or in the face of great need, as they seem to have been now."

"Yeeeeah, that wasn't anything to do with them," Harry said. "Long story. Short version, someone whose powers include unlocking stuff got hold of it and accidentally… unlocked it."

Sif blinked, then nodded. "Its basic functions are to absorb and channel a broad spectrum of energies, processing and redirecting them to serve a range of purposes, under intuitive mental control. One of them is, as Lady Carol discovered, to enhance the wearer's physique, grant them flight, and unleash energy blasts. As she also discovered when she repurposed the suit as a substitute for the Green Lantern, in the right hands, its capabilities go far further."

Harry stared at her for a long moment. "How much further?" he asked carefully.

"Further enough that I think this is a conversation I should have with her, my Prince. If nothing else, some of the finer details of the artefact may only reveal themselves to me when I can examine it personally."

Harry mulled over this one for a moment, then nodded. "… Yeah, I figured that might be the case," he said, before shooting her a very serious look. "It won't harm her, will it? Or cause any unexpected transformations, bindings, or changes?"

"It will not," Sif assured him. "Nor will it bind her."

Harry frowned. "Will it change her?"

Sif considered this carefully. "It will not change who she is," she said. "But it is power, my Prince. In my experience, whenever someone has power, they must adapt to handle it."

OoOoO

Carol stared at herself in the mirror. It had been the best part of ten minutes, and she was still finding it hard to believe her eyes. The shield was now armour, red, gold and deep blue armour that moved and felt like cloth, but carried the faint sheen of polished metal, folding over her head into a moulded helm that could either be blank as a slate or moulded to her very skin, either containing her hair entirely, or letting it flow out in a mohawk like a horse's mane, or even dispensing with the helmet entirely.

It deflected blades and bullets with nonchalant ease, she barely even noticed them. Even spells bounced off it - unless, that is, she focused and absorbed them entirely, making their power her own, amplified and redirected.

Only a few days ago, she'd thought it was nothing more than a magic shield; like Steve's, but with a few more bells and whistles. She'd suspected that there might be something more to it, she'd been wary about that, yes. But she'd never imagined anything like this. And the really frightening, yet exhilarating, thing? She was absolutely certain that this was only the beginning.

"It looks good on you."

She twitched and turned to see Steve in the doorway, wearing a small smile.

"I'm still getting used to it," she said. "Though, it is pretty cool." She grinned. "It even does pockets."

"Always useful," Steve replied easily, before giving her a serious look. "I mean it, though. That artefact, whether it's a suit, a shield, or something else entirely... it represents power."

"You have no idea," Carol muttered.

"Maybe not," Steve said, nodding. "But I think I have a better idea than most."

"Probably true," Carol conceded.

"Power's not easy to handle," he continued. "It's not easy to give up, and it's easy to let it change you. You've shown that you can give power up, and so far, it hasn't changed you. Well, not much. But I'd say that when it has, it's changed you for the better."

"How do you mean?" Carol asked, letting the armour flow back into shield shape, arranging itself on her arm. It got easier every time.

"You look more confident, more self-assured," Steve said. "More content with who you are."

"I'm a hereditary super-soldier whose body has been messed about with by magical beings, magical artefacts, and magical blood several times over," Carol said. "You could argue that I'm not so much 'me' as 'Franken-Me'."

"You could say the same about me," Steve said equably. "I mean, I got shot up with an untested variant on a formula that had once drastically mutated a man into a monster and driven him even crazier than he already was. After that, I got whacked with a massive dose of strange radiation, then shot up about a foot and put on 150 pounds of muscle in the space of two minutes." He chuckled wryly. "I spent most of the next year doing a double-take every time I looked in the mirror, or waking up and wondering what had happened to me, why I could see so clearly, why it was so easy to breathe. Even now, I sometimes get moments when I wonder: am I me? Or am I... Franken-Me?"

"I guess I do still look like me," Carol admitted.

"Only where it shows," Steve said. When Carol looked puzzled, he clarified. "The serum amplifies everything about you. I wasn't sure about how that applied when you inherited it, but now that I've got to know you, well." He shrugged. "Maybe it's just growing up, or the situations you've been in, but you seem more you than you were."

"... that sounds like it's both very profound and total gibberish."

"It's hard to really quantify," Steve admitted. "But Doctor Erskine told me that the serum would 'make a good man great, and a bad man worse.'"

"He got it right with you," Carol said.

"I'm glad you think so," Steve said, and put his hands on her shoulders, looking her in the eyes. "I also think that if he met you... he'd be proud. Because it wouldn't take him long to see that he'd have been proven right."

Carol flushed like a sunset.

"I can see it," Steve went on. "So does the rest of the team. Strange sees it, same way he sees everything else. Harry sees it too, and more - he looks at you like you hung the moon." He focused on her shield. "And I think Odin saw it too."

Carol blinked.

"Your mom told me that you were wondering," he explained. "Wondering about -"

"What made me so special," she finished softly.

"Well," Steve said thoughtfully. "It could be a number of things. You handled the Green Lantern Ring pretty well, first time out. A weapon as powerful as Mjolnir, and with zero experience, you used it with distinction at the Battle of London. It chose you, and so did Strange. Odin may not like Strange -"

"Who does?"

"- but when it comes to people, he trusts Strange's judgement, and with good reason. He is horribly manipulative, unspeakably ruthless, and frankly, downright crazy. But it's undeniable that Strange has a knack for picking exactly the right person to do whatever needs to be done," Steve continued evenly. "I wondered if he'd picked me, actually."

"Did he?" Carol asked, morbidly curious. After all, for all she knew, Strange had taken the time to ensure that each generation of her family was conceived at the exact moment necessary to get the person he wanted. It wouldn't be out of character, and it certainly wouldn't be beyond him, not after some of the things she knew he'd pulled off. Slipping the future Captain America onto Project Rebirth's radar would be child's play by comparison.

"I asked," Steve said. "He said no. Said he didn't need to. His exact words were 'some things, Steven, are just meant to be.'"

Carol smiled a crooked smile. "That, I can believe," she said.

Steve shook his head. "I'm just a boy from Brooklyn," he said.

"And I'm the Queen of Sheba."

"No, you're not. Maybe the Queen of Asgard, someday," Steve said, and grinned at the squeak he drew. "But not Sheba." He smiled. "I'm a boy from Brooklyn. You're a girl from Queens. And maybe that's why."

Carol tilted her head and frowned.

"What do you mean?"

Steve was silent for a moment, considering his words. "I don't know much about why Strange does things," he said. "His overall goals, those I understand. His motives, I usually have a pretty good handle on. He's not half as obscure as he acts; though that still leaves room to be plenty obscure. He's still human, yeah. But he's old enough, and he sees far enough, that his perspective isn't the same as ours. Not by a long shot. Sometimes, he's more or less an open book. Sometimes, he's nothing of the kind."

Carol squinted at him. "Is this a long way of telling me that you have no idea?" she asked.

"I'm getting to it," Steve said patiently. "One thing I do know, though, from Thor, is why he picked Harry. For the Phoenix, for his plans, for all of it. He freely admitted that he could have stacked the deck the same way for anyone else. But he picked Harry. He said that he picked Harry because he was a hero, not thanks to whatever powers and destinies he was given, but in spite of them. Because he chose to do the right thing."

"You think that's why Odin picked me?" Carol asked, faintly incredulous. "You think it's seriously as simple as that?"

"He might have other reasons," Steve acknowledged. "You're descended from me, and as far as they're concerned, you've shown that you have my strength – not just in body, but mind. Personally, I think they're wrong." He smiled and gently squeezed her shoulders. "I think you're stronger."

Carol went pink and leaned into him. "You," she said, voice muffled by his shirt, but distinct. "Are so unbelievably cheesy."

"Doesn't mean I'm wrong," Steve replied lightly, and felt more than heard the soft chuckle that followed. "Asgardians put a lot of weight on that sort of thing. You handled a sentient Mjolnir-grade weapon without losing control for a moment, and they respect that, too. And you were already close to Harry, you had his back – you'd even shown that you were willing to sacrifice your life for him, the others too. You can bet he noticed that. Maybe he figured that someone with your kind of talents and integrity would be a valuable investment."

"That... sounds like the Odin I've heard about," Carol admitted, exhaling slowly.

"He's also said to have some kind of foresight," Steve said. "He's not Strange, not by any means, but apparently he does get glimpses of the future. Maybe it was destiny - or just something he saw that he knew would give his people, his grandson, an advantage. Or maybe it wasn't even that. I know from Thor and Loki that Asgardians perceive the world in a very different way from us. They see so much more." He slid his gaze down to hers. "Though you'd probably understand that better than me."

Carol went a little pink again, but conceded the point with a nod.

"It stands to reason that Odin sees even more than them," Steve continued. "Heck, even if he didn't, it could be that he got a tip-off from Heimdall, who sees practically everything, or Frigga, who sees practically everything else. It could be any of those things or thousands more, we can go all day."

He looked at her.

"Personally, I don't think it was some prophecy, or even what you inherited from me, that did it. See, I spent a long time asking myself the same question about why Erskine picked me. I'm still asking it, if I'm honest. After all: I'm a boy from Brooklyn. Everyone scoffs when I say it, but it's true. There were plenty of people like me. Some got a break, some didn't. Why did I get mine?"

"Erskine saw something in you," Carol said.

"I asked him that. He told me about Schmidt – Red Skull. He said that there were plenty of big guys fighting, maybe now what was needed was a little guy," Steve said. "He said that a weak man would understand the value of strength, that they would know compassion. That..."

He frowned, a little troubled.

"I'm not entirely sure I agree with him on that. I've seen men, and women, go from being weak to being strong, and if anything, changing for the worse, because they took all the wrong lessons from it. They didn't see their new strength as a way to protect people, they saw it as a way to get ahead, and push down anyone else on, or in, their way."

"But you did," Carol said. "You understand the value of strength. Maybe that's why he picked you - and why Strange picked Harry, come to think of it." She paused. "Actually, considering that Essex was way involved with what made Harry 'weak', and he has so many unresolved issues over that, maybe not." She shook her head. "Besides, I've never been weak. Not the way you're talking about."

"Maybe," Steve echoed. "And that's true, you haven't. But you had your father to contend with. My dad was dead, and my mom might have been a saint, but I knew plenty who weren't. I've seen what it can do to people. How it can change them. Not by making them bad, necessarily, but just wearing them down, day in, day out, with little chance of escape and no cure by magic or medicine."

He took a deep breath.

"Erskine asked me to promise that no matter what happened, I would remain who I was: not a perfect soldier, but a good man," he said. "So, what I think Erskine really saw in me, and what Odin saw in you, is basically the same thing. Someone who wouldn't be changed by adversity..."

"... meaning that they wouldn't be changed by power," Carol concluded. "But I'm pretty sure that there are people who have gone through way worse than me."

"You also proved yourself with the Ring," Steve pointed out. "Which is more than I ever did."

"No, you just casually use Mjolnir as a door-stop, like that's normal."

"That was one time, Carol."

"I heard it was four. At least."

Steve eyed his great-granddaughter, who smirked. "If you're done interrupting?"

"Sure."

"I'm glad. Anyway, you proved yourself with the Ring. That proved... well. Nothing's guaranteed, in science or magic."

"Down in his lab, Tony just had a science-gasm and doesn't know why. Sorry."

"Nothing's guaranteed. But I suppose it proved that we were worth taking a chance on."

OoOoO

Clark knew that he'd been taking his chances. Every blurred disappearance, every swift escape… he'd been running the risk that, sooner or later, he would be discovered. He would be identified. Tracked, hunted down like a dog, and, eventually, cornered, with nowhere to go. Oh, he could probably get out, but the cat was out of the bag now. He had lost. Despite his best efforts, most cunning deceptions, and the sage advice of his elders, he had lost.

But he was damned if he was giving up without a fight.

"You know that I can still see you, right?"

Clark froze, then sagged. As he did, he drifted down onto a beam, which creaked disproportionately loudly as his weight settled onto it. It was as if the world was taking care to underline just how pointless his struggle had been.

Though in hindsight, flying into the barn had probably been a mistake.

The stairs creaked steadily, and a minute or so later, Lois Lane entered his peripheral vision, leaning on the safety rail of the barn's loft.

"You know, for someone who can fly, you're not very good at finding places to hide," she said after a moment. "And for someone who's spent a lifetime hiding their powers… you're not very subtle. Seriously, you are terrible at this secret identity thing. Terrible."

Clark let out a put-upon sigh.

"I mean," Lois continued. "If you'd fronted up to me and played off the resemblance, I might have doubted it. Especially if you kept up the dork act."

"Dork?" Clark asked, offended.

"Dork," Lois said casually. "Shy, naïve, and fresh off the farm, all honesty, integrity, and homespun American values – the good ones, anyway. In other words: dork."

"It's not an 'act'," Clark said sourly, arranging himself to sit more comfortably on the beam.

"No, I guess it's not," Lois said thoughtfully. "I mean, you're a terrible liar. I know I said before that you should never play poker, 'Kal', but I really mean it. Don't. Ever." She turned around and leaned against the railing, which creaked alarmingly. Clark eyed it dubiously. Lois didn't seem to notice. "On the other hand, that's not a bad thing, I suppose," she mused. "Aside from hiding the fact that you've got superpowers, and that you're probably an alien, what you see is what you get."

"People might say that's a lot to hide," Clark said, frowning.

Lois shrugged. "Maybe," she continued, looking out the open window at the misty fields. "But it isn't really hiding who you are. Sure, when I fell out of that plane, I was saved by a-a-a god. Except… I wasn't." She turned back, thick jacket scraping against the wood, leaning her elbows on the railing and her heart-shaped face on her hands. "I was saved by a dork. Someone whose first response to me throwing up on him was to wipe it away and say he'd seen worse. Someone who caught me, pulling off a genuine miracle, and mostly just seemed embarrassed. Someone who reassured me and teased me as I was getting my bearings back. Someone with the powers of a god who was so awkward, so dorkish, so… so human."

She smiled, those whiskey brown eyes lighting up, and Clark's heart leapt, before melting into confusion. Yes, Lois was pretty, beautiful, even. But he was in love with Lana, wasn't he? She still made him stumble, make a complete fool out of himself, and… his feelings hadn't changed. Well, that wasn't entirely true. Not after he'd started to think about them. In fact, his feelings for Lana – or rather, how he felt about his feelings for Lana – had been a bit undecided after his conversation with Harry. His cousin, he had to admit, had made some good points. After all, when you got down to it… how well did he actually know Lana?

Then again, how well did he know Lois?

A small, treacherous part of him pointed out that this conversation brought his total of sincere and open heart to heart conversations with Lois to three. With Lana, he'd be at a stretch to find one. Not every conversation had to be earth-shattering and soul-searching of course. That would just be exhausting. But at the same time, as with Chloe and Lex, he could drop his guard.

Well, with Lex, he sometimes had to keep it up anyway, but that was because of his father, who both Lex and Clark's own dad despised. While Clark was happy to see one of his best friends and his father getting on, he did find it a bit disturbing that one of the main things they'd bonded over was a mutual hatred of Lionel Luthor.

Even before Lois had figured out who he was out of the suit (which had, according to Chloe, happened in about ten minutes after she'd found a picture of him, her, and Pete on Chloe's dresser), even hiding behind another name – even if it was technically his original name – he'd felt able to be more open about who he was, his real anxieties and fears, than he'd ever been with Lana. Or even Pete, come to that, and that really stuck in the craw. Pete Ross was one of his best friends. Yet at the same time, there was always a wall between them, a secret, the Secret, italics and capitalisations and all. He always had to hide part of himself.

Around Lois, by contrast, there was no polish or artifice. She was completely unvarnished. Which, granted, he thought ruefully, could be a mixed blessing. As Chloe had quipped, "that's our Lois: body of a goddess, voice of a drill sergeant." Not that Clark necessarily minded the voice, when it wasn't raised at him. It was quite nice, actually, low and smoky, and oh god he was blushing.

"Hey, Pretty Boy."

Clark blinked, then shot Lois an indignant look. "Pretty boy?" he said indignantly.

"Well, you are pretty," Lois said, shrugging. "And you're a boy. And it got your attention when you were staring off into space." She smiled an artful smile. "Thinking of someone special, were you?"

Clark went bright red. "No," he said firmly. "No one."

"No one special?" Lois asked, now smirking. "From what my very forlorn cousin tells me, you have a thing for the literal girl next door, Lana Lang. Apparently, you always have."

Clark grimaced. "I… suppose?" he said.

"I hope you've never told her that," Lois said. "It's not exactly a ringing endorsement."

Clark scowled at her and was met with something that was half-amused, half-curious, and… sharp. Very sharp. While Clark wouldn't disagree with Chloe's summary of her cousin, quite the opposite, he'd also add "a heart of gold and a mind like a razor." There was something of the razor in her eyes right now and he wasn't sure why. Normally, he might have retreated and avoided the subject, especially in light of that. However, there was something about Lois that invited confession.

"Well, I've never really discussed it with her," Clark said.

"You think she knows how you feel?" Lois asked, eyebrow quirked. "Hate to tell you, Clark, but boys confuse girls just as much as girls supposedly confuse boys. You're a fairly open book, but…" She trailed off pointedly.

Clark shook his head. "We're not going out," he said roughly.

"That much, I knew," Lois said. "She's dating the figurative hometown hero, the high-school quarterback, not the literal hometown hero, you." At Clark's visible surprise, she shrugged. "Chloe poured the town gossip into my ears, whether I liked it or not," she explained. "Said it was revenge for making her babysit Lucy while I tracked you down."

Clark, who remembered how loud and, frankly, angry, Lois' sister could get from the night they'd chatted on the balcony, winced. Lois wasn't going to be the only one enduring Chloe's revenge, he just knew it.

"She also said it was pretty obvious how you feel," she added, and there was that sharp look again.

Clark was confused, then shook himself. "Well, I'm not sure how I feel," he said. "I…" He looked away. "I didn't know her as well as I thought I did."

That got a concerned look. "She done you wrong?"

"No," Clark said, adjusting his perch to avoid meeting Lois' gaze. "No, definitely not. I just… I was asked some questions. About how well I knew her, and how well she knew me." He folded his arms and looked away. "We don't, know each other, I mean. Not really. Not well, I mean. We know each other, but we don't know each other, you know what I mean?"

Lois cocked an eyebrow.

"Depends," she drawled. "Are we talking literally, or biblically?"

Clark fell off the beam.

What followed was a startled squawk, some malcoordinated floating and flailing that made him look like he was being dangled by his ankle about six inches from the floor, and Lois laughing so hard she nearly fell down the stairs.

Shortly after that, the two were sitting on hay bales. Lois was still suppressing giggles, and Clark was pointedly not looking at her and trying not to make it obvious that he was sulking.

"So," Lois said, collected but with amusement still bubbling under her words. "Your dream girl is human after all, huh?"

Clark debated not answering for long enough that Lois elbowed him lightly in the ribs, before sighing.

"Probably," he said. "I don't know. What I realised is that I don't know her, who she really is. I mean, I know she's friendly, she's smart, she's pretty, and she's popular, and…" He exhaled. "I know some of her likes and dislikes, stuff like that. But I don't know her as person." He glanced at Lois. "She was, is, the girl of my dreams, yeah. But I'm not sure what the reality is."

"Do you want to find out?" Lois asked curiously. "Discover the Miss behind the Mystery, that sort of thing?"

Clark frowned. "I suppose?" he said.

"Way to sound enthusiastic, farm boy."

"Are you going to keep making up different nicknames for me?" Clark asked irritably. "I have a name. Two, even."

"Fine, Clark," Lois said. "Point stands: you don't sound exactly eager."

"Well," Clark said. "What if she didn't live up to all I'd imagined she was? I'd be disappointed in her for being who she really was. For being human. That's not fair on her."

"Mature, liking it," Lois said, nodding. "It wouldn't be all that fair on you, either. You need to be kind to yourself, Clark."

Clark eyed her. "Are you?" he asked.

"I have my good days," Lois said, shrugging, then sighed at Clark's concerned look. "No one's perfect, Clark. I'm definitely not. You might have gathered that I've got issues."

Clark's gaze dropped pointedly to the edge of the cigarette packet in her pocket. "I'd noticed," he said.

Lois rolled her eyes. "Well, most of them boil down to someone who answers to 'General Lane' more easily than he does to 'dad'," she said. "It's not always easy to love yourself when your father barely seems to remember you're there – and only really notices when you've made things difficult for him."

Clark felt horrified, sympathetic, and outraged, all at once. This must have gone straight to his face, because Lois smiled a fond, sad smile.

"Not everyone got as lucky as you with their parents, Clark," she said. "The General's not too bad. Just busy. Busy, busy, busy. All the fucking time."

"That's no excuse," Clark said censoriously.

"He's a three-star General, it comes with the rations," Lois said, shrugging.

"My cousin's father is a god, Crown Prince of Asgard, and superhero, and his godmother is the main magical defender of our reality," Clark said firmly. "If they can make time, so can he."

Lois, who had pulled out a cigarette, paused thoughtfully. "You make a good point," she remarked. "Not one I can use on the General, unfortunately, but it's something. Thanks." She raised the cigarette hopefully.

"No."

"Oh, come on. We had a bonding moment."

"You tracked me down and laughed at me," Clark said steadily.

"You're missing out a lot, and that was still a bonding moment," Lois argued. "We worked through feelings together. That's tiring. And it makes me crave a smoke."

"And if my parents see you smoking, or smell you smoking, or smell your smoke on me, they will freak," Clark retorted. "With reason. Those things are bad for you." He eyed her. "Also, I am not your novelty lighter."

"Never said you were," Lois said. "But it is one of your marketable features. Or it would be if it wasn't part of the whole 'secret alien' thing." She shot a soulful look at him. "Please?"

Clark met her gaze steadily. "That's the exact same look Chloe uses on me, just so you know," he said. "I've built up an immunity."

"Figures," Lois grumbled. "Explains a thing or two, though."

Clark shot her a funny look. "What do you mean?"

Lois' expression was disbelieving. "You don't know?"

Clark remained confused.

"Oh my god, you really haven't noticed. Screw immunity, that's a whole different kind of superpower."

"Lois?"

"Ugh, never mind," Lois said. "Something to unpack later, after I talk to Chloe. The 411 is that you're catastrophically oblivious."

"Oh, thanks," Clark grumbled.

"Nothing personal," Lois said. "Your parents would really freak?"

"Well, maybe not freak," Clark said, hedging. "I mean, I'm not sure if cigarettes would even affect me. They would worry about whoever was smoking or getting secondhand smoke around me, though. Which means that they would definitely be worried about you, and you would get lectured."

Lois grimaced. "If there's one thing you can say for absentee parenting, that's the kind of thing you don't usually have to worry about," she said. "On the other hand, when the General does pay attention, it's usually a lecture." Her voice shifted into a mock gruff register. "'Why are your grades falling, Lois?' 'What kind of example are you setting for your sister, Lois?' 'Do you think this is what your mother would have wanted, Lois?' Well, gee, dad, I don't know and I can't really ask her, because she's fucking dead."

Clark hesitated, then reached a sympathetic arm over the words poured out, Lois leaning into his side as bitterness and well-hidden pain flowed. Then, there was a long silence, before Lois abruptly shook her head and brushed an arm across her eyes, dashing away any tears. It was only then, apparently, that she noticed their position. Hurriedly, Clark released her shoulder.

"Sorry, I," he began, before Lois leaned into him again.

"It's okay," she said. "It was sweet of you." She shivered exaggeratedly. Clark tried not to think about how pleasant that felt, or the faint pang as she straightened up and away. "Also, I had no idea that Kansas got this cold. How do you manage it? How are you so nice and toasty?"

"Well, I'm a solar powered alien, so that helps," he said dryly. While he had to admit that there was a lot about girls that he didn't get, he could quite clearly see that she didn't want to talk about this.

"Mmm, living radiator," Lois said. "That'll definitely help you get a girlfriend."

"Really?" Clark said sceptically.

"Definitely," Lois said. "Good for romantic nights in, great for cold days out, and even better for saving on heating bills. Very practical." She stood up. "Well, nice as this talk is, I'm going to have to love you and leave you, because I really need a smoke, and if you're not gonna light me up, I'm going to have to get mine from Chloe's. Her and me need to have a long talk."

"I can give you a lift," Clark said, standing up, but she waved him away.

"Again, sweet, but I'm going to have to pass on the comfy arms and toasty seat of the Clark Kent express," she said. "I don't think I'd throw up this time, but it would be pretty hard to explain how I got home without my ride." She jangled her keys pointedly.

"Oh," Clark said, trying not to sound too obviously disappointed. "Right. Of course."

She punched him playfully on the arm. "Don't look so down, I'm not going anywhere for the next couple of weeks," she said. "You'll see me again." Her tone turned arch as she looked up at him. "That is, if you're going to stop trying to avoid me?"

Clark rubbed the back of his head. "Yeah, I think I'm going to have to give in to the inevitable," he said ruefully.

That got him a smirk. "Good. Saves me all the trouble of chasing you down. Not that it wasn't fun, mind you." She tossed her keys, snatching them out of the air as she strolled to the barn door. "Anyway, I'll be seeing you… pretty boy."

And then, as Clark gaped indignantly, she left, trailing bubbling laughter.

It took him about ten minutes to move past said indignation to process what she'd actually said. He got the vague sense that it was important, though Lex was no help. In fact, he was worse than no help: he burst out laughing.

"Some things, Clark," he said mysteriously. "You need to work out for yourself."

This, and his parents' amused looks when he brought it up with them, did not reassure Clark in the slightest.

Eventually, he resorted to calling his cousin. Harry listened patiently, before Clark rounded it off with, "and I'm missing something, I know it!"

There was a long, incredulous silence, before there was a sound of rustling on the other end.

"Hang on a second, Clark, I'm just going to ask for a second opinion."

Clark sighed, then mumbled, "sure."

There was more rustling.

"No," said a vaguely familiar, also muffled female voice, replying to something he hadn't heard. "You, one of the strongest telepaths ever… weren't that blind. You were worse."

"Oh."

"Yeah."

There was a meek, contrite pause.

"… that must have been very frustrating."

"Very."

Clark, half-annoyed, half-vindicated, coughed pointedly. "I can hear you, you know."

There was a muffled squawk and a number of fumbling noises.

"Hello?" he asked uncertainly.

"Hey, Clark, is it?" the female voice, Carol, said. She had a definite New York accent.

"Yeah," Clark said, a little warily. He knew that his cousin's girlfriend knew about him, in a roundabout sense at least (Harry had cleared that with him, explaining both who she was and the fact that their psychic connection meant there was inevitable information leakage), but he wasn't sure of what she knew. Plus, when it came to his Secret, Clark's parents had understandably taken 'stranger danger' to a whole new level.

"You were at New Orleans, right? Red and blue, goggles, dark hair, kind of shy…"

Clark, now recognising the voice and the name from beyond Harry's occasional comments, resisted the urge to smack his head against the wall. Yes, he most certainly remembered her.

"Yeah, I was," he said. "Crazy night, right?"

"Mmm. One of the craziest, and in my life, that's saying something," Carol agreed. "So, Harry's leaving this to me because he has no stones to throw in the romantic obliviousness department –"

"Romantic?!" Clark squeaked.

"Well, that's the very short version, yeah," Carol said blithely. "Anyway, he has no stones to throw."

Clark shook his head to clear it. "I'm sorry, 'romantic'?"

"She's got the hots for you," came the matter of fact reply. "How far it goes, I don't know. Given she's an Army brat and on holiday, I doubt she's thinking 'grand romance'. Roll in the hay, maybe?"

Clark made a funny noise.

"Or maybe she's just flirting with a cute boy," Carol went on. "Also entirely possible. I mean, she went to the trouble of tracking you down to prove she did too know who you were under the suit, which is a lot of effort for flirting, but definitely possible."

Clark sat down with a thump.

"… I'm not sure how to feel about this," he said eventually.

"Then leave it lie," came the reply, with an almost audible shrug.

"Right," Clark said. "Sounds practical. Very practical."

"You're conflicted, aren't you?"

"A little?" Clark said. "I mean, she's the cousin of my best friend. They were going to chat about something."

"Close cousin?"

"They act like sisters, or really close friends."

"I meant in terms of degree, but that's probably more helpful," Carol mused. "Sounds like she's checking if the way is clear."

There was a pause and some more muffled noises.

"Oh, Harry wants to speak again. Hang on."

Clark waited patiently.

"Okay, handing over. Good talk, Clark. Nice to meet you properly."

"And you," Clark said. "Thanks for the…"

"Insight?"

"Yes. That."

"No problem, glad to help. Plus, it's practice for my little brothers when they get old enough for girlfriends. Or boyfriends. So, bonus. Handing over."

There were more rustling nods.

"Clark?"

"Yeah?"

"Okay, just one piece of advice: before you do anything else, and I mean anything, talk to Chloe."

Clark blinked. "You mean, ask her permission?"

"… not quite."

"What do you mean?"

"Clark. She has a thing for you."

Clark stared at the phone as if it had grown tentacles. "I'm sorry, what?"

"You heard me."

"Harry, the first day Chloe and I met, she kissed me, then told me that it was to get the awkwardness out of the way so we could just be friends."

"Well, it failed. Miserably. I saw the two of you together for a day, and for most of it, someone was trying to kill you. Despite that, Lex and I spent half that time wincing about how she had a thing for you and you didn't even seem to register that she was a girl, and a pretty one too."

"Oh," Clark mumbled. "I didn't realise that."

"Clearly," Harry said dryly, before turning serious. "Look, Clark, I've seen this before. Even if you decide not to have anything to do with Lois, anything other than being friendly, talk to Chloe."

"Right."

"Do you have feelings for her?"

Clark paused. "Not really?" he managed, feeling rather guilty.

"Then let her down gently, Clark."

"Of course," Clark said, a little offended that he would do otherwise.

"I don't think you'd hurt her on purpose," Harry explained, catching the tone. "I just think that you can be as awkward with girls as I am. Which is very. Maybe ask Lex –" There was a pause and a lot of talking. "Okay, scratch that, whatever you do, don't ask Lex. Try asking your mother for advice."

Clark cringed.

"Don't you have any suggestions?" he asked plaintively.

"None I'd risk offering to anyone I actually liked, no."

Clark sighed. "Okay," he said mournfully. "Thanks anyway."

He cut the call and let out another sigh, before looking at his bedroom door and through it to the stairs beyond with vague dread. He heaved himself up grimly and trudged towards his fate. It looked like he wasn't getting away from this one, either.

OoOoO

Elsewhere, there was another date with destiny.

Hermione looked up as she heard the Hospital Wing's doors open, admitting Ron, and a tall man in finely made smart-casual muggle clothes. His gaze, as iron-grey as his hair, swept the Hospital Wing, before landing on her.

"Good afternoon," he said politely, voice a smooth, English accented baritone.

"And to you," Hermione said, catching Ron's eye out of the corner of her peripheral vision. He looked pale and profoundly awkward – an unusual combination, she had to admit. "If I may ask, who are you?"

"A most pertinent question, my dear," he said. "I should have led with the answer: My name is Erik Lensherr. However, names can be changed, adopted and discarded, as I have done in the past, so let me boil things down to their simplest: I am your grandfather."

Hermione's jaw dropped, and she stared, the pieces falling into place, things she had technically known finally becoming astonishing, earth-shattering reality right in front of her eyes. Not six feet away from her was possibly the most feared man in the world, in certain circles at least. No wonder, a small part of her thought, Ron was so nervous.

"But if you would prefer to do so," continued Magneto. "Then please feel free to call me Erik." He smiled kindly. "I have been waiting a very long time to meet you."

And for possibly the first time in her life, Hermione found herself lost for words.

Ending on a slightly dramatic note, after a somewhat dramatic previous scene, but fitting. Also, regarding Clark's dramatics, for all that Smallville!Clark is a sweetie, he does have a very teenage sense of melodrama, aggravated by his circumstances. Seriously, look what happens when his inhibitions are removed on Red Kryptonite. Once, he runs off to Metropolis, robs banks, and lives the high life for several months. Another time, he gets slipped it, runs off to Vegas with his girlfriend and gets married. Also, he wears a lot of suits and trenchcoats, and casually proves his abilities by shooting himself in the hand. He basically turns into Fox/Netflix's Lucifer. Repression aside, that's a lot of melodrama.

Anyhow, light, a fair bit of character stuff, and part of the steady wind down, while throwing a few bread-crumbs for the future.