Lex Luthor leaned forward across his desk, turning a furious glare on the blonde woman seated there. “You must be kidding.”
Mercy Graves utterly failed to be intimidated, and her tone was cool, almost bored. “No, I’m not. When have you ever been able to predict her behavior accurately? You can listen to my input, or you can ignore it and let me get back to work. Only the fact that you’re currently my employer makes it matter to me in the slightest whether or not you get yourself killed over this woman.”
The nonchalant declaration made him sit back in his desk chair and regard her thoughtfully. Mercy was unlike any other woman of his acquaintance – honestly, she was unlike anyone he knew. Logical, aloof, coldly self-absorbed, she couldn’t be swayed by threats or promises, and she seemed to have no personal feelings whatsoever. That, combined with a formidable intellect, made her fascinating. Fortunately for them both, there was absolutely no attraction between them. That made her an ideal colleague, and little as he liked to admit it, she had a point at the moment. “You were saying?” Lex prompted.
“Leave her alone,” Mercy said flatly. “Lois Lane isn’t coming after you yet. She has two small children and it’s only about a week before Christmas. She’s far too wrapped up in her family to hunt you down. Assuming she could even find you here.”
“That is where you underestimate her,” Lex replied. “I’ll admit she isn’t an intellectual colossus on our level, but she’s stubborn and disgustingly lucky. If anyone could find me here, it wouldn’t be the alien; it would be that damned reporter.”
“Fine,” Mercy said. “We can warn her off. We have time to plan. But if you aren’t careful, she’ll pursue you more intently. If she’s as determined as you say, threatening her too much or too little will only strengthen her resolve. Whatever action you take has to be very finely calculated.”
“Hmm,” Lex murmured. It was true that kidnapping her children and threatening the alien had provoked some astounding responses from Lois. Who could have guessed that she would gamble with her own life so readily? Or that she possessed the strength and courage to subdue Riley and Grant?
“We have time,” Mercy repeated. “It’s the holidays, and all your observations seem to indicate she thinks you’re out of commission. We need to be studying her and her circle of acquaintances, looking for a weakness. Other than those children; I think we’ve established that she’ll kill or die to protect them, and you don’t want her that defensive.”
“Very true,” Lex agreed. He hated to admit that only the lucky chance of a huge mirror had saved his life aboard the Gertrude. If Lois had seen him and not his reflection, she would’ve killed him in cold blood before any of his men even knew she was aboard the ship. Perversely, that fact only intrigued him more. “If we spend as much time and resources on surveillance as you’re suggesting, I’m afraid we’ll wind up with a lot of useless data before we find the key.”
“There’s no such thing as useless data,” Mercy said sharply. For the first time, her voice betrayed an emotion: impatience and perhaps a trace of anger. “You never know what tiny detail may become important through further research. Even the fact that her ex-fiancé has now taken up with a fashion designer could be vitally important to us one day. All data is useful.”
“Very well,” Lex said, and Stanford’s jaw would have dropped to hear that respectful and almost conciliatory tone being used toward a subordinate. Accustomed as the geologist was to Lex’s arrogance, hearing the tone at all would have been a shock. “You have my approval to carry out the observation as you’ve outlined. I’ll see to it that you have sufficient resources at your disposal.”
Mercy simply nodded; she would not thank him for doing something that benefited himself. “I’ll report back to you weekly by the arrangements I’ve suggested,” was all she said before taking herself out of his office.
Lex watched her go, his mind far away – in Metropolis, to be exact, where the woman who had thwarted him so many times was probably spending all of her time trying to convince her coworker that he was the actual father of her half-breed spawn. He really had to learn more about this Clark Kent – the man seemed so unassuming that he had to be hiding something…
As he often did when he thought of Lois Lane, Lex opened his desk drawer and took out his favorite souvenir of their last encounter. He always handled her gun carefully; a trace of her perfume lingered on the rosewood grip, and he didn’t want to erase that just yet. Whenever Mercy counseled patience, that faint scent and the memory of Lois pleading for her children’s safety stilled the vengeful anger in Lex’s heart…
“An’ we got to ride horses again, and Daddy Richard fell off!” Kala crowed into the receiver, and Lois couldn’t help but snicker. She could hear Richard in the background muttering unhappily; he, Lana, and the twins were in Smallville this weekend, having taken his plane instead of a commercial airline. The plan was for them to explain a few things to Lana’s parents – starting with, ‘They’re still not precisely mine, Mom, but you’ll probably be seeing a lot of Lois’ twins,’ the reporter thought with another amused chuckle. They were also going to bring Ben and Martha back with them. With only a week to go before the holiday, Ma Kent didn’t want to miss her son’s first Christmas home, and Ben’s two sons would be able to look after the Kent and Hubbard farms for a week or two.
The downside of all of this was that Lois was once again left missing her children; the Riverside house was achingly empty without them. Something she was starting to notice more and more lately. No matter how many times she told herself it was only a few days, that she’d miss this peace and quiet when she was hosting Ben and Martha, a part of her kept calling for her babies. This is the price of having an extended family, Lois mused, lying on the couch, the phone cord wrapped around her index finger while she listened to her daughter chatter away. Everyone wants to play with the kids. The whole reason Jason and Kala are out there for the weekend is because Martha missed them so much.
Kala finished gleefully describing Richard’s tumble into the mud, and after several reassurances that Lois loved her very much and missed her terribly, she surrendered the phone to her brother. “I love you Mommy!” was the first thing he said when he got on the line.
“I love you, too, sweetheart,” Lois replied with a smile, her heart swelling with adoration. The twins were so different sometimes, and she loved them both so much for those little idiosyncrasies. The urge to hold them both was almost unbearable despite the miles. Why did I let them go this close to Christmas? They need to be here with me. Hating herself for the selfish thought, she asked him warmly, “So, besides watching Daddy make a fool of himself, have you been having fun?”
“Uh-huh,” he said with a laugh. She could see both the nod and the bright grin on his little face clearly in her mind. “Mister Ben showed us how t’ follow rabbit tracks in the snow. Barkley helped.” And now it was his turn to chat, his sister in the background giggling and protesting as the aforementioned hound licked her face. “We got to see a fox – a real fox, Mommy, and Barkley howled an’ howled ‘til Mister Ben picked him up.”
“I bet that was exciting,” Lois chuckled, remembering the sheer volume the aged hound was capable of producing. “What did Grandma say?”
“She said she’s glad Mister Ben can hear better than Barkley, or he’d starve t’ death while she was callin’ him for supper,” Jason replied. “And then we got to go to the store, and since we were with Miss Lana we got candy for free!”
Lois stifled a sigh. That was another one of those wonderful things about extended family; she couldn’t police what was done while they were away from her. The most obvious of which lately was the non-stop spoiling. Making herself let it go, she just made herself sound chipper. “Really? Wow. So what else has been happening?”
After a while, Richard managed to get custody of the phone again. “So you heard about my ignominious defeat,” he said, by way of introduction.
“The entire thrilling tale. It’s clear that they’re the product of a journalistic up-bringing,” Lois teased. “Didn’t break your tailbone, didja?”
“No, just my pride. It didn’t help that Lana laughed so hard she couldn’t breathe. Oh well, the majority of women do like a guy who can make them laugh…”
“Speaking of things that’ll make me laugh, how are you getting along in Smallville?”
“Oh, fairly well,” Richard replied, his calm tone making it clear that he had been enjoying himself. “I actually like the people around here – those guys hanging out on the front porch at the general store, they’re pretty cool. I mean, dudes in their seventies and eighties who think they can actually ogle Lana… It was hilarious.”
“It was a preview of you in about forty years,” the raven-haired reporter shot back. “Utterly useless and still eyeing women half your age. Glad you like Smallville, you’ll be retiring there.”
“Nah, I couldn’t live here,” he said with a hint of real regret in his voice. “There isn’t a decent rock and roll station anywhere on the radio dial.”
“Oh, please. That’s no reason not to stay there if that’s what your problem is. That’s why God invented XM radio, Richard. Satellite radio stations are your friends.”
“Yeah, I’d hate think what would happen if I listened to too much crying-in-your-beer music…”
He trailed off, and in the background, Lois heard Martha clear her throat. She stifled a laugh; it was too easy to imagine the stern look the older woman was giving her ex. A moment later, she heard from much nearer to the phone, “Richard, I listen to country. And it is not all crying-in-your-beer songs.”
Lois choked back a whoop of laughter, her current sadness momentarily forgotten. I can’t believe he didn’t expect that to happen. It is Kansas and they are of the older generation. Duh, Richard. You’ve got a lot to learn. “Uh-oh, now you’ve done it. You’re in trouble with the cheerleader now,” she teased some more. “I can’t believe you said that out loud.”
“I guess I’d better buy a pickup truck and a cowboy hat,” Richard said resignedly, and Lois heard both Martha and Lana laughing. Lois rolled her eyes and smiled. So laying it on thick. “Seriously, though. People finally quit talking about you, Lois.”
“Yes, now I’m the topic of the month.” The owner of that complaint was obviously Lana, the irritation in her voice quite clear even though she was several feet from the phone. “My own mother can’t believe I picked up your stray, Lois.”
“Tell her she can keep you, Richard,” was the younger woman’s retort. “And tell everyone around town that I’m delighted for the two of you. They’ll get used to it eventually. Maybe Ben and Martha ought to get into trouble and take the heat off you guys for a while.” There was a sound outside, making Lois look up.
“Yeah, they’ve both been amazing,” Richard told her. “I only got to talk to Martha a bit before we made the arrangements and flew out here, but now I see where Clark gets a lot of his best traits from. His mom’s seriously cool.”
“Flatterer,” Lois heard Martha call affectionately. “Don’t think that makes up for the comment about the music, though, Richard.”
There was another smattering of laughter in the background at the farmhouse. “Darn,” Richard sighed. “Hey, Lois?”
There had been a strong gust of a wind a moment before and Lois was staring over at the French doors hopefully, sitting up. She had missed the last moment or two of hilarity almost entirely. “Mm?” she replied, a bit distracted.
“I get the feeling I don’t have your full attention,” he said gently. “I mean, normally you’d tear my ego apart for at least half an hour over falling off the horse. You told the kids Clark wasn’t home when they first called – where is he, anyway?”
The reporter paused a moment, then heaved a sigh as she lay back down, bracing the phone against her shoulder. Richard always had been fairly good at spotting her moods, even if he didn’t know the reasons behind them. “Out of town,” Lois replied, her tone finally giving away her unhappiness as she fidgeted with a lock of her black hair. It was highly unlikely that anyone was listening in to this conversation besides those who already knew the secret, but she chose her words carefully anyway. “He’s up north.”
Richard paused, then said, “Aha. Checking on the vacation home?”
Lois started laughing as soon as he said it – what a perfect code for the Fortress. Trust Richard to not only catch on to what she was trying to say, but to find ways to help her discuss it. “Yeah, he’s been gone since last night. You know there was a break-in, and he’s been returning some of the stolen property he managed to recover.”
“Kinda lonely at home, huh?” Richard said with clear sympathy. “He should be back soon, right?”
She glanced longingly at the back door once again. “I expect him home tonight or tomorrow morning. I know for sure that he’ll be back before you guys get back,” she replied, then added softly, “One of the things that was taken … was a recording of his father. Given the way his old man felt about me, I’m not entirely sure whether I’m happy he has that back in his possession. It would almost be better for everyone if the recording was damaged.”
“Lois, if Clark’s dumb enough to be having second thoughts based on what someone else thinks of you – even if that someone is his father – I’ll smack him in the head for you,” Richard said. “Although it might break my hand if he’s as thick-headed as you think.”
That made Lois laugh at last. “Thanks. I love you, too, Richard.”
“I know you do,” he replied easily. “I’m just never gonna drink your coffee again. Thank God; that stuff was lethal.”
“Wuss,” Lois teased. “Look, I know you have free long-distance, but that’s no reason to abuse it. Go play with the twins; Jason will show you Fred the Frog’s residence if you ask.”
“Gladly, but the pond’s frozen over now. I’m pretty sure our boy Fred’s vacated his Froggy Apartment.” He paused for a minute, listing to something being said, then added, “Martha wants to talk to you really quick. Here she is.”
Before Lois could even prepare herself to talk to the older woman, Martha was on the line. “Listen, sweetheart. I heard Richard’s half of that. And if my son is having second thoughts about you, I’ll swat him. You’re one of the family now, you hear me?”
“Well, considering the fact that both of my entries to the Kent family tree are running around your living room playing with beagles, I should hope so,” Lois laughed. “I’m looking forward to having you here, Martha.”
“And I’m looking forward to visiting,” she replied. “Especially to meeting the infamous Gazeera and Captain Jack. And Lana and Richard both insist that I have to meet your mother at the earliest opportunity.”
Lois gulped; it was hard to imagine what the two women would make of each other. They had a lot in common: strong personalities, widowhood, a deep adoration of the twins, and a certain irrational maternal protectiveness over their risk-taking offspring. But the last time Ella had mentioned the twins’ ‘other grandmother’ it had been with a distinctly jealous note in her voice. “It ought to be interesting,” Lois said.
“I’m sure we’ll get along like a house on fire,” Martha chuckled. “After all, she is your mother. She must be a fascinating lady.”
“Yeah,” Lois said weakly. “And you’ll probably adore my little sister. Everyone does…” Oh boy. She’s small-town Midwestern – I don’t think they have that many interracial marriages in a town the size of Smallville. Martha ought to be okay with that. She raised an alien, for the love of God. And Ben seems pretty cool on that score…
“Lana’s been raving over how adorable her children are and how handsome her husband is,” Martha said, ignoring the muttered protest from Lana in the background. “Not that the twins aren’t her favorites – I know you can hear me, Kala Josephine – but I’m actually looking forward to meeting the whole family.”
“I’m sure they feel the same,” Lois said, reminding herself to tell the others that Clark’s mom was coming to town for Christmas. “Speaking of the cheerleader, put her on the phone, please?”
“Sure thing,” Martha said. “Take care of yourself. Lana, darling?”
“You too,” Lois said, adding quickly before she handed the phone over, “Give my love to Ben.” The next moment, she heard Lana’s amused voice, and said urgently, “Please tell me you explained everything.”
“What do you mean?” Lana asked.
“About Lucy. And Ron. And their kids.”
“What about them?”
“Lana,” Lois groaned.
“Oh, that.” Lana sighed aggravatedly. “Yes, I think I mentioned that the children are mixed. Lois, we are not a bunch of provincials from the nineteenth century out here. No one is going to panic and use any kind of offensive racial epithet, all right?”
“Look, I just don’t want to offend anyone,” Lois growled. “I did enough of that when I came out there the first time!”
“Yes, well, all your sister’s children were born after she married Ron, so it’s fine by Smallville standards,” Lana shot back.
“Don’t make me hang up on you,” Lois said sharply, and heard Lana snicker.
Taking a deep breath, Kal-El placed the pristine father crystal into the central slot in the Fortress’ control console. He had no idea what to expect; the Fortress itself had been completely powered down and demolished before he’d left for Krypton, but had rebuilt itself in time for Luthor to steal the entire collection of teaching crystals. Not just the ones with simple recordings on them, but also this main crystal, the one that had once contained the programming for Jor-El’s artificial intelligence program. The one that had allowed him to speak with his father, at least until Jor-El had given up his own power source to return his son’s superpowers and enable him to defeat Zod and his followers. After that, the father crystal had only held static recordings.
But now, he had no idea what to expect. The crystal slid into place easily, and the entire console brightened. For a long moment, nothing else happened, and Kal-El began to think that Luthor had somehow erased the information from this most important crystal. All the others were intact, but this one…
The large, smooth crystal surface across from him brightened, exactly as it had when he had first stepped inside the Fortress to explore its wonders. After another pause, Kal-El heard his father’s voice say, “My son” as Jor-El’s image began to take shape. He let out the breath he’d been holding in a relieved sigh.
“You do not remember me,” Jor-El continued. Kal-El’s jaw dropped in shock as he continued, introducing himself in exactly the same words he’d used the first time. Jor-El seemed not to remember him at all. Had the destruction of the Fortress wiped all of the stored memory out of the crystal? Kal-El managed to interrupt the greeting, and stammered out a few questions that established that this was the true AI, not merely a recording. Now he felt his heart begin to pound. He had his father back – but Jor-El remembered nothing.
He doesn’t remember what happened with Zod. He doesn’t remember me losing my powers, or giving them back to me. And he doesn’t know that I’m involved with Lois now, or that I have the twins. Oh, boy… “Father, I have much to tell you,” he began, falling into the formal rhythms of their speech quite naturally. “The Fortress of Solitude was damaged, and it appears that the records of our past conversations have been lost. I would revisit our past exchanges and all of the wise counsel you have given me, so that you will know where we stand now.”
The hologram nodded. “If the central crystal was damaged and regrown, such memory loss would occur. Please, my son, speak. I would know everything.”
Taking a deep breath, Kal-El thought back to those first lessons. When he spoke again, it was in Kryptonese. “We have much to discuss, father.” And perhaps by the time I tell him about Lois and Jason and Kala, he will trust my judgment.