In the utter disbelief of being forced onto the dance floor by the very girl he had mooned over for most of his preteen years, Jason had completely forgotten to wonder what was taking Giselle so long. If he were honest with himself, his crush on Jamie had lost some of its intensity over the years. It was hard to love as madly, or as blindly, as an eight-year-old could. But the sight of her in this lovely dress had still made his stomach do slow barrel-rolls while everything he could possibly say vanished from his mind. Some things faded very slowly, and puppy love was apparently one of them.
Fortunately he’d gotten his mind together while they escaped their parents. Jason was a decent dancer, a fact which seemed to surprise Jamie once they got onto the dance floor. It also bothered her to look up at him, he could tell, and Jason grinned. “What’s so funny?” Jamie demanded.
The mischief of the little boy he’d been gleamed in his eyes when he replied with a little grin. “Watching you freak out over how tall I am.”
He had know that that little frustrated huff was coming, Jamie trying as hard as she could to look annoyed, but after a moment she gave in and smiled back at him. “Yeah, well, even if I get a crick in my neck from staring up at you, you’re always gonna be the cute kid giving me pathetic looks, okay?”
Now it was Jason’s turn to show his exasperation. Then again, he did have to admit that he’d been more than a little obvious to the older girl. “Hey now,” he warned, trying not to blush. “None of that. You’re not Padme and I’m not Anakin, all right?”
The law student tipped her head back and laughed. “Only you, Jason. Only you could make a movie reference like that. And no, I’m neither queen nor senator.”
“And I’m not gonna grow up to be evil, because you’re not gonna die in the third film,” Jason added, leaving out the fact that Kala had occasionally claimed he was just as whiny as Anakin Skywalker. That got a smile out of her, and he smiled back.
Clark had hung back when Kala swept up to the group, overjoyed and excited. Not that he didn’t share in her delight – she was beautiful – but for the first time in her life, he had seen the woman Kala would become, not the girl she’d always been. That hint of the future served as a cruel reminder of everything he’d missed.
I never saw them as toddlers, or infants, he thought. Never lay beside Lois and listened to their hearts beating within her womb. I never saw the first steps or heard the first words, never got to take them out for their first trip to the park in the springtime. I’ve had the last ten years, and they were sweet, but the time of childhood inevitably comes to an end. And for some reason, Kala growing up hurt him more than Jason. Maybe because he could see Jason as a slow, steady progression from shy, sickly child to strong, smiling boy to serious, smart teenager. The years of handsome, charming young man were right around the corner; were already here, as Jason smiled at Jamie Sawyer. Clark knew Jason’s story, could see the past and the future in him, not least because it was his own story. The son becomes the father…
But Kala was something else. Part of it was because she was a girl – things were different from boys. In one summer she’d gone from little girl to teenager, a sudden change that unsettled Clark. It felt like one day she had been fascinated by dolls, and the next she was shopping for bras. Now he’d been forced to see her as a woman – and worse yet, he saw an echo of Lois’ younger years in his daughter’s fearless stride. Time and tide wait for no man, not even for Superman, he thought, sweet-sorrowful regret running through him. The bossy little girl who’d leaped into his lap was gone into memory, and his daughter was a young woman now. Clark felt as though he should have hugged her more, should have played airplane with her more often, should have given more tickles and more Eskimo kisses. He had shown Kala as much love as he possibly could, and it would have to be enough, since there was no turning back time…
That phrase always struck a chill down his spine. Early in the formation of the JLA, Hal had taken Kal-El aside and murmured that the Green Lantern Corps had noticed a certain rip in the fabric of space-time. A place where someone, mad with grief and desperation, had flown through time and changed something major to save the life of the woman he loved. Time had healed itself, but the scar remained, and Hal had quietly warned Kal-El against any future manipulations of space-time. He’d gotten away with it once … twice might literally mean the end of the world.
Clark had agreed, relieved. Though he’d contemplated turning back time when the twins were missing, some instinct had warned against it. And later, when Lois learned what he had done for her, she had also warned him against it. Vehemently. Lois Lane wasn’t easy in the knowledge that she’d been dead, or that her nightmares of being crushed and suffocated in darkness actually had a source. They’d spoken of it once, in the depths of the night, and never again. Nor had Hal or anyone else from the JLA ever mentioned it to Kal-El beyond that once.
Such thoughts had no place at the twins’ sixteenth birthday party, or so Clark told himself. Just because he saw time slipping through his fingers where Kala was concerned, watching his baby girl grow up with the same dismay any father experienced, was no reason to be so morbid. Shaking that mood off, Clark saw that Kala had whirled away from the adults and back into the mingled group of her friends and Jason’s. For the moment he simply watched her, giving free rein to that peculiar feeling of mingled pride and grief. So this is what it’s like to be a father to a daughter, he thought. To miss who she was even when my chest is about to burst from the wonder of who she’s becoming.
When the ache in his throat became too much, he turned his attention to the dance floor. Jason and Jamie were dancing, and he’d just said something that made her laugh merrily. Clark smiled at them both; with Jason, his joy was unalloyed. The boy was everything a father could wish for in a son. Jason had none of Kala’s moodiness. His temperament had always been much more stable, even if he was a little insecure in his adolescence. At an age when so many boys were a trial to their parents, Jason’s only flaw seemed to be that he was trying too hard to grow up too fast.
Clark remembered an afternoon when the family was watching the evening news together before dinner. A story had come on about a family who’d been in a car wreck. Some Good Samaritan had arrived to offer assistance, a young man, the oldest daughter had said. Her little sister had been crying, although Clark was certain that the girl was actually screaming. He’d seen how very young she was in the news story, and knew that frightened little girls often shrieked in terror.
Anyway, the anonymous rescuer had taken one look at the dazed family in their crumpled car, and torn the back door off. “Just tore it,” the father had said, still looking a little shocky around the eyes as he stared into the news camera. “Ripped it off like the top of a box of cereal.” He went on to say that the young man had helped them all out of the vehicle and over to the side of the road, before the first ambulance arrived, and ruffled his daughter’s hair before vanishing.
About that time, Clark had noticed Jason sinking down into his seat at the end of the couch. For a moment, he didn’t understand, but then the story showed the accident location. It was barely a mile from Stalmaster, on the twins’ route home. But Kala had stayed after school that day to practice. And the man on television hadn’t seen a girl rescue his family.
“I’d sure like to find that young man and tell him thank you,” the man said from the television, and Lois turned to stare at Jason. Clark had thought, Thankfully he’s tall, and he looks a little older than he is. Thankfully we have other meta-humans in the world now, and I’m not the only one around with super-strength.
Jason had just stared at his shoes while Lois and Kala stared at him like he was crazy. It had been Kala who finally said, “Good deed, Jase, but damn you’re dumb. Don’t try to keep them from seeing your face, don’t be a blur. You even ruffled the little girl’s hair!”
“She was scared,” the boy had mumbled, flushing crimson. And that told Clark everything he needed to know. They had stepped up the visits to the Fortress since then, with a subtle emphasis on the mission. Jason couldn’t be who he was and not want to help. Lois had registered her displeasure; she felt like her little boy was being pushed into all of this far too early. But Clark disagreed. He’d seen the same hunger on Jason’s face that looked back at him from the mirror. The boy could no more ignore someone’s need than his father could. No one was pushing Jason to follow in his father’s footsteps; it was all Clark could do to hold him back long enough to learn the skills he would need.
“Gets to you, doesn’t it? Watching them grow up.” At the man’s voice, speaking so familiarly and with such perfect insight into his state of mind, Clark was almost certain he would see Pa standing beside him. He turned very slowly, and still his heart tried to superimpose the image of Jonathan Kent in front of the evidence of his eyes. Smiling sadly, Ben continued, “I’ve got two sons, myself, you know. They’ve put most of these gray hairs on my head, and more than once I’d’ve liked to pick them both up by the scruffs of their necks and bonked them together, hoping to knock some sense in. Drive you crazy, kids will.”
Clark chuckled; oh, he could relate to that. Sometimes it sounded like he and Lois were raising a herd of very argumentative elephants, the way Jason and Kala would squabble.
“And break your heart,” Ben continued. “When mine decided they were too old for bedtime stories, I went down to the living room in the dark and cried a little before I took myself to bed. Not too much, because I was proud of them, too. They’re real good for that, breaking your heart and putting it back together twice as big, feels like, ‘bout to bust your shirt-buttons beaming at them.” He shook his head slowly, a wry smile still on his lips. “Kids.”
“They’re a handful,” Clark agreed softly, and let his smile stand for all the things he couldn’t quite articulate. Putting an arm around his stepfather’s shoulders, he added, “C’mon, Ben, let’s find out if the guests left us any food.”
So far, so good. She’d had gotten through the lobby, but halted before the doors to the party itself as if frozen. Just the final reality of being in front of the doors to the Centennial Ballroom was like being slapped awake. Stupid, stupid, stupid, kept echoing through her mind, although whether the stupidity lay in hesitating when she’d gotten this far, or in coming to the party at all, she couldn’t tell.
Seconds ticked by as she struggled with her options and had almost come to terms with the possibility of retreat when she heard someone call her name. “Elise? Is it really you? Oh my gosh, what’re you doing here?!”
Turning guiltily, Elise saw the charming smile and blonde hair of the girl hurriedly crossing the lobby toward her, and relaxed. The question she’d called out wasn’t spiteful in the least, just honest and delighted surprise. “Hey, Ashlyn,” she said in a voice that only slightly betrayed her nervousness, greeting the other girl with a hug. “To be honest, I really don’t know what I’m doing here.”
“If I know a certain little ‘blackbird’, and I do, I know you’re here because she missed you.” She stepped back from Elise and grinned. “She’s not the only one, you know. I’m glad you made it.” Then she glanced at the dress the other girl had worn, smiling to herself slightly. “I love that dress, too.”
“Thanks,” Elise replied distractedly, missing the knowing look on the little blonde gave her. Her stomach was currently the residence of a whole rabble of butterflies and the longer she stood here, the more they fluttered. “Look, I don’t think this was my best idea. Ashlyn, I’m glad I got to see you, but I think I should leave.”
The other girl gave her a disappointed frown. “What? But you can’t leave now!” Ashlyn protested. “Elise, come on! You just got here!”
“I know, but…”
The smaller girl was having none of this, immediately cutting her off with, “You haven’t seen Kala’s dress yet, and you didn’t come and talk to Ms. Lane – she misses you, you know, Mom said so. And everybody’s here – I’m sure they all want to see you, too. Stop being so silly.”
Elise’s eyes skittered away from her friend’s, sneaking a glance at the ballroom’s doors again. “Yeah, but there’s at least two who don’t want to see me, and one of them is the birthday boy,” she muttered, surprised at her own bitterness.
Ashlyn crossed her arms and just looked at her, perfectly emulating her own mother’s no-nonsense expression. “If you think Jason doesn’t miss you, Elise, I’m going to have to completely revise my opinion of you. I thought you were way smarter than that. Not to mention, the birthday girl is one of your friends. That ought to be more important than your history with the birthday boy.”
There was no missing the discomfort that comment caused. “I know,” Elise said miserably. “I just…”
“Can’t make up your mind?” Ashlyn supplied, taking charge as always as she took Elise’s arm and started moving forward to push open the doors without the slightest anxiety. “Here, I’ll make it up for you, that’s how good a friend I am. C’mon, you’re going to the party and you’re going to have fun.” Before Elise could protest, she’d been swept into the room on the tide of Ashlyn’s enthusiasm, remembering all the times she and the twins had wound up following a similar cheerful whim. She’d met the blonde while dating Jason, and though she’d originally been wary of a potential romantic rival, Elise had quickly discovered that Ashlyn was just a good friend to both Jason and Kala. The four of them, plus Sebast and sometimes Kristin and a couple other friends, had often gone to movies together.
At first, Elise was nervous, and she kept to the edges of the party, ready to bolt if she saw Jason looking her way. But Ashlyn scolded her for trying to be a wallflower, and kept bringing her to groups of people who were overjoyed to see her, until Elise calmed down and acted like her old self. Eventually she and Ashlyn drifted apart, as Elise talked to some of her fellow Stalmaster students and Ashlyn went to talk to her parents.
Just as Elise turned to seek out some refreshments, the one person she didn’t want to see appeared at her side. “What are you doing here?” Giselle snarled.
Elise felt her stomach plummet, all of her earlier fears returning. Giselle looked beautiful, even with an angry scowl on her face. And how could she possibly have expected to avoid her ex’s new girlfriend at his birthday party? She’d never felt more like a fool, wishing she could just sink into the floor … or better yet, wishing she’d never trespassed here to begin with…
And, thank God, the cavalry arrived just in time. Elise knew that voice the moment before Kala stepped between them so quickly that Giselle was forced to step back or be shoved. Birthday or not, the warning look in those hazel eyes was as obvious as a stop sign. “Back off, Giselle. I invited her. Do you have a problem with that?”
“Why?” Giselle asked, glaring at Kala in annoyance and amazement.
The raven-haired girl smirked, putting a hand on her hip. “She’s my date,” she said airily. “You only have your sixteenth once. I figured I’d pull a Bruce Wayne and bring two, one of each. And I think it’s safe to say I have the best-looking dates in the room, bar none.” Kala’s grin was so warm, Elise felt herself start to smile back despite the turmoil. Sebast, at her side, looked over her shoulder and gave Elise an encouraging little wave. Elise waved back, torn between nausea at the scene Giselle was trying to make, and laughter at Kala’s insouciance.
The camaraderie between them just seemed to aggravate Giselle all the more. “You’re just trying to mess things up between me and Jason.”
“No, you idiot,” Kala said, taking another step closer. “I promised Dopey that I would try to behave tonight, but you had to get in the middle of things. She’s my friend. I’ve got news for you: this is Jason and Kala’s party. This evening is not about what you like and what you don’t. And before Elise dated Jason, she was his friend, too. That gives her more right to be here than you. Now, unless you would like me to break my promise to my brother further, I suggest you go find him and stop harassing my guests.”
The anger in Giselle’s eyes was clear, but she didn’t speak, stalking off presumably to find Jason. Kala grumbled under her breath in irritation, muttering something darkly that sounded a lot like bitch. Sebast squeezed her hand, making her look at him when she heaved a sigh. That done, she seemed to switch gears and turned to Elise, beaming. “Hey there, Elise! Welcome to the party!”
Always amused with Kala and her mercurial moods, Elise just shook her head. “Hi, Kala. I’m here. And that was exactly what I didn’t want to happen.”
Kala shrugged flippantly, linking her arm through Elise’s just as Sebast did the same to her. “Well, now that the worst is over, you can enjoy the rest of the party.” She gave a devilish smile as she leaned her head against Elise’s. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you. Come on, my parents long for intelligent and informed conversation.”
“I am not speaking to your brother,” Elise warned.
“Fine, fine, we’ll let Lizard-boy go console his sniveling little rebound mistake. The thought had not even crossed my mind. He’ll be beating himself up soon enough,” Kala said dismissively. “In the meantime, you and I and my handsome arm-candy here will go make the rounds.”
Those gray eyes were already scanning the room. “Where is Jason, anyway?” Elise said, quickly adding, “So I can avoid him.”
Kala couldn’t resist the smirk that that question brought on, and Sebast answered for her. “He was just dancing with Jamie Sawyer. I’m not sure where he is now. Probably off trying to recover.”
“Jamie actually danced with him? He didn’t faint?” Elise asked in wonder. Jason and his hopeless crush weren’t exactly a secret to anyone who had spent any time with the family. After she had met Jamie for the first time, and watched her around Jason, any thought of jealous had disappeared.
“Yeah, I know,” Kala said with a chuckle. “The end is nigh. Jason actually acted like a grownup around a pretty college girl.”
“Yeah, after you conned her into it, devil girl. Hey, she looks great, and this is me saying it,” Sebast interjected, shrugging. “I’m proud of the boy. With his history with her, I’d say he held up pretty well.”
That seemed to remind the birthday girl that she had yet to show off her eveningwear, it seemed, having been so involved with her brother’s drama. “Oh! Elise, the dress! What do you think? Is Lana the greatest designer to ever walk the earth, or what?” She broke away from them both to twirl and make the dress flare, halting in a runway pose with a wicked gleam in her eyes. “C’mon, tell me. Do you like it?”
Now that Elise got a proper look at it, she grinned, catching some of Kala’s enthusiasm. “I don’t think you need me to tell you it’s amazing,” she said at last.
That prompted the biggest smile that Elise had seen from her since before the summer. And anything that made Kala that honestly happy was infectious. “You’re right, I don’t, not with that smile on your face. This birthday present rocks.” Laughing merrily, she drew Elise and Sebast over to where the parents had gathered.
Any lingering doubts Elise had over whether she was welcome here vanished the moment the Whites and Lane-Kents saw her. For a bare instant, Ms. Lane looked at her with more than a little shock, but then she broke into such a broad grin that Elise felt ashamed of herself for avoiding Jason.
Still, the way everyone glanced around for Jason or Giselle was a tiny dagger in Elise’s heart. Lana was the first to hug her, stepping back from it with a warm smile. “I’m glad you made it, dear,” she said.
The rest of the greetings and compliments flowed easily after that, Lois hugging her last. Grinning at her, it was Jason and Kala’s mom who finally made her laugh by sighing, “The rocket scientist is back amongst us. Oh thank God, some sanity returns.”
Across the ballroom, the song had ended, and Jason and Jamie stepped off the dance floor. He let go of her hand only to see someone else catch it up quickly, and he was surprised to feel glad for her instead of the pang of jealousy he expected. It was just as well, because he turned around to see Giselle coming through the crowd with an angry scowl marring her lovely face.
He dodged compliments to get to her quicker, worriedly asking, “What’s wrong?”
“Your ex is here,” Giselle said, and Jason saw the glimmer of tears in her eyes. “Kala brought her. I can’t believe her. Jason…”
“Hey,” Jason interrupted, cupping her perfect face in his hands and gently wiping the tears away before they could trickle far. “Giselle, it doesn’t matter. It doesn’t. I’m here with you, remember? She’s the one who ought to be crying.”
She sniffled, staring up at him earnestly. “You’re sure?”
“She left me,” Jason said. “And she didn’t even have the decency to tell me the truth. I found out later she was seeing some guy in New Zealand. Why on earth would I possibly want to talk to her?”
“Most guys would,” Giselle said. “Most guys would have to get a girl like her back just to prove they were better.”
“I’m not most guys,” Jason said. “And I’m not the least bit interested in anyone who’s not going to be honest with me.”
At that, her tears seemed to stop, and Giselle flung her arms around him. Jason hugged her back, gently, and heard her whisper, “You’re the best guy I ever met.”
A slow song came on – Kala and Jason had split the music fairly evenly between their tastes and the adults’ – and Lois felt a warm hand at her elbow. “May I have this dance?” Clark murmured in her ear.
She turned to him, a slow, warm smile lighting her eyes in response to his low tone, the husky murmur only she had heard him use. Another man’s face had been in her mind’s eye as she watched the teens mingling: the investor who’d arrived early for the meeting earlier this week, and who been visiting every few days, trying to learn about the newspaper business. His name was Erik Eastlake, recent inheritor of Andrew Eastlake’s stock in the Daily Planet, and he was some eight or nine years Lois’ junior. Young enough that his enthusiasm and endless questions were sort of charming, instead of a pure annoyance. He was handsome enough, though no man compared to Kal-El as Lois knew him.
Eastlake’s boyish smile vanished from Lois’ thoughts the moment she saw her husband’s azure eyes, and her heart skipped a beat. She had been idly contemplating what the younger man would’ve thought of this dress; Eastlake was a flirt, and Lois accepted his compliments with a chuckle, a veteran of the dating game amused by the efforts of a dedicated amateur. But the warmth in Clark’s eyes left no doubt what he thought of it, nor what he was thinking of now, and Lois let him lead her out to the dance floor with untarnished delight.
They swayed to the music, Lois resting her cheek against Clark’s chest and listening to the steady beat of his heart. He kissed the top of her head, softly, and they were in perfect sync again. No words needed or even wanted between them, just moving in harmony to the music and each other. Lois closed her eyes in bliss, trusting him to guide her.
Jason danced several songs with Giselle, and she stayed glued to his side for most of the night. He lost her in the crowd again after cutting the cake, momentarily distracted by the need to glare at his twin for her presumptuousness. Unfortunately, the opening of the gifts prevented him from saying anything to Kala. The last time he’d seen Giselle had been right after opening her present. She’d given him tickets to the symphony, a very sophisticated gift that had impressed the grownups. Luckily they hadn’t heard her whisper in his ear, “Maybe we’ll make an evening of it,” with that impish gleam in her eyes.
She’d disappeared shortly after, while Jason opened the camera from Uncle Jimmy, and he thought she was probably mingling with the other Stalmaster students. That was fine with Jason; he had so many people to thank that he couldn’t have paid her much attention, anyway. Eventually he found himself chatting with his cousins Nora and Joanna, and Kala’s friends Melissa and Angie.
And then all four girls looked past him and smiled in unison. “Aww, that’s so sweet,” Angie said, even as Nora and Joanna guiltily turned their attention back to Jason.
They were too late. He was already turning to see what had delighted them, but the sight had a much different effect on him. Jason had been aware of Elise all night, usually catching a glimpse of her either at Kala’s side or lurking with the grownups. He hadn’t spoken to her, nor did he intend to. But what had put those adorable smiles on all four girls’ faces was Elise finally taking to the dance floor – with Kristen. The little redhead was clearly enjoying this departure from curfew, laughing like a loon as Elise spun her around, and nearby Bryan and Michelle were dancing with all the grace and coordination of a couple of puppies romping.
It was cute, but this final betrayal – even his baby sister seemed to be demonstrating her preference for Elise over Giselle – provoked Jason to actually do what he’d only been thinking of doing all night. Making polite excuses to the girls, he stalked off to confront Kala.
He found her, of course, hanging out with his friends. And it seemed Kala had heard Nathan’s teasing remark about Caleb liking her, because the guitarist was gazing at her with the hypnotized expression Jason was all too used to seeing on the faces of guys who talked to his sister. When she was in a taunting mood, she could make the seniors stutter.
Jason caught her elbow and muttered, “I need to talk to you. Right now.” She planted her feet, but he simply dragged her away, seething, while Nathan and Caleb and Daniel just stared in amazement.
“Sorry, Caleb,” Kala called sweetly. “Jason doesn’t like it when I talk to other boys.” She gave the most innocent shrug as her brother pulled her out into the hallway.
Jason rounded on her. “Just what the heck did you think you were doing, inviting Elise to the party?” he snapped.
Kala never flinched, never backed down – it was one of those things she seemed almost incapable of doing. Instead she stepped forward, into Jason’s personal space. “Excuse me? This is my party too, and I invited my friends.”
“Since when is she your friend?” The moment the words left his mouth, Jason knew he’d been too hasty; both of them had known Elise for a few months before he had started dating her. Actually, Kala had been friends with her first.
The deadly glare he received told him Kala wasn’t going to let it go, either. She crossed her arms and raised an eyebrow in perfect echo of Lois. “I see the Pink Princess of Doom really is sucking the brains right out of your face. If you recall, Jason Garen, Elise was friends with both of us before you got the brilliant idea to date her. The only smart thing you’ve done in the last couple years, by the way, thanks for screwing it up.”
“She left me,” Jason snapped, forgetting for a moment that he was already in dangerous territory. “No, wait, she didn’t really leave me. She said we should separate for the summer since she was going to be in New Zealand, and then I found out all about her hot summer boyfriend after she came back. She didn’t even have the decency to tell me about the Kiwi herself!”
Kala covered her face with an aggravated sigh. “Jason, tell me something, did she ever say anything to you about this supposed guy? I mean, ever? Did you even get a name? If it was such a great epic summer thing, I’m sure she’s only mentioned his name to a million people, right?”
Perplexed, Jason could only shake his head. Why would he want to know more about Elise’s infidelity? Besides, they hadn’t spoken until that moment in the hallway earlier this week.
Kala pressed onward, looking at him as if he were a completely brainless elementary-school kid. “Did you ever confront her about it at all, or did you just run around yelping about how she hurt you until you found something cute and fluff-brained to take your mind off it?”
“No, I never confronted her,” Jason said, deeply confused now. He’d meant to be the one doing the yelling and accusing here…
His sister rolled her eyes, tipping her head back as if appealing to a higher authority. “You see? This is what happens when you know nothing about girls and you go and propose to one at the ripe old age of fifteen. Jason. Please, grow a brain. Someday.”
“What’re you talking about?” he exclaimed, his head aching. “Kala, you brought my ex to my party! Why are you mad at me?!”
“Because sometimes you have all the understanding of a wad of gum!” she snapped back. “Especially when the answers are right in front of you!”
When Jason could only stare at her, Kala caught his face between her hands and glared at him, her hazel eyes wild with frustration. “Sometimes I forget how brilliant you are,” she said, shaking his head back and forth. “This is one of them.” After staring into his eyes for a moment as if she could will comprehension into him, she sighed and finally relented. “It’s a good thing I love you, Dopey.”
On that note, she turned and walked away, leaving Jason to wonder what had just happened.
Richard got himself a glass of punch, the fast beat of the last song still leaping in his pulse. The fast tempo had called Lois out on the dance floor, and he had gone with her – Clark Kent didn’t have a reputation as the kind of guy who could keep up with Lois Lane at anything faster than a waltz, so Richard stood in for him. The friends and family didn’t bat an eyelash, knowing perfectly well that sometimes a dance was just a dance.
Not everyone was of that impression, however. Cat’s boyfriend, Andrew, was getting her another glass of punch, and he looked askance at Richard. “You’ve got a lot of balls, dancing with your ex right under your wife’s nose,” he said. “I can’t believe she lets you get away with it.”
Richard stared at him for a moment, thinking, You struck out again, Cat. I give this one two weeks, tops. “For your information, Andy, the reason Lana doesn’t mind is because I’m dancing with Lois in front of her. If I was going behind her back, she might be worried. But since Lois and Lana are friends – and since Lois’ husband happens to be a damn good friend of mine – I think you can take your attitude and shove it.”
Cat arrived just then, and Richard greeted her flatteringly, all the while planning to share this latest incident with her as soon as possible. He even beamed at Andrew, flaunting his friendship with Cat – she had always liked him, even when Tobie had been calling him Dick at every opportunity – and enjoying making the younger man uncomfortable. Make that one week, once I talk to her. You aren’t good enough, buddy.
The party seemed to be winding down when Kala climbed atop a chair and rapped a fork against a glass, producing a high-pitched chime that quickly got everyone’s attention. “First, Jason and I would like to thank everyone for coming to our birthday party,” she said, her voice carrying clearly to the back of the room.
Jason stood beside the chair, and he spoke next. “It’s an honor to have so many of our friends and family here to celebrate this day with us.” The timing of this speech was more important than figuring out what Kala had meant, or how she’d managed to go from accused to accuser. Right now, he just wanted to reveal the final surprise.
Kala picked up smoothly where he left off. “But there’s one person who deserves our gratitude more than any other. Without her, none of this would be possible.”
“A little over sixteen years ago,” Jason continued, “she made a very difficult choice, and embarked on a journey for which she was entirely unprepared. In spite of that unexpectedness, she did the best she could, always worrying that it wasn’t good enough.”
“And in spite of the fact that she’d always been self-sufficient, she accepted the advice and the help of her family and friends,” Kala said. “It wasn’t easy – it was never easy – but for sixteen years she put all of her heart and mind and will into being the best at something she’d never even imagined becoming.”
Both twins were silent for a moment, looking across at Lois, who had just realized they were talking about her. “And you succeeded, Mom,” Jason said softly.
“You did,” Kala affirmed. “You were always the greatest mother, and you always will be.”
Hearing those words, particularly from the child with whom she had the most strife, brought tears to Lois’ eyes. Her hand covering her mouth to stifle a sob, the reporter let her son come over and lead her out of the crowd. Kala hopped down from the chair with the kind of casual grace adults envied in teens, and beamed at her mother. “Most people receive presents on their birthday,” she said, those familiar hazel eyes sparkling with mirth. “But Jason and I have never been ordinary. And without you, Mom, we wouldn’t have a birthday to celebrate. So this year, we got you a gift.”
Jason took the small velvet box out of his pocket and opened it, holding it out to Lois ceremoniously. “Smoky topaz, our birthstone,” he said, as his mother stared wordlessly at the silver locket with its gemstone. “Good pictures of us both already in it – well, I look okay, Kala looks like Morticia Addams as usual.”
The girl elbowed her brother, cutting him a swift glare. “Anyway, we had a hard time keeping you and Dad from finding out,” she said, grinning at Lois. “Do you like it?” There was a hint of worry in the question; Lois hadn’t spoken yet, her eyes flickering between the faces of her children and the locket nestled in white satin.
As the crowd watched, silently, Lois took the necklace from its box. The stone had looked dark until she lifted it, revealing gold and amber highlights flickering within. Lois opened the locket and caught her breath; she had been expecting a picture of each twin, probably recent. What she saw on the left was one of the twins’ early pictures, taken shortly after Kala’s eyes had changed color and while Jason’s hair was still fair and baby-fine. In the right half of the locket was a recent photo she’d never seen before, obviously taken just for this purpose. Though the picture was cropped down to just their faces, Lois could guess that Jason had been seated, Kala standing behind his chair with her chin against his temple and her hair falling onto his shoulder.
There was a long, silent pause as Lois stared at the pictures with her free hand rising to her mouth, so overwhelmed that she couldn’t even speak. So much had been going on within the family these last months, so much grief and frustration and so many missed signals, that this reminder of the bond between them brought tears to her eyes. It was years since it had been just the three Lanes against the world and all comers. Sometimes she wondered if either of the twins could remember back that far and a part of her wished they didn’t. Unable to stop herself, Lois felt the tears welling up in her eyes as she continued to glance from one picture to the other.
Ever the awkward parent, she’d never wanted them to remember a moment when they hadn’t been loved enough and both of the men in their lives had been extraordinary in showing that. But that didn’t mean that she didn’t want them to know just how much she had always loved them, even if life got in the way. As long as they lived, they would always be her little babies, so tiny and fragile that they had spent time in the NICU. Watching them in the wee hours of the morning in those first few months, frightened awake from dreams of them not being there. Scared that someone would find out whose they were and taking them, of their little bodies just not being strong enough to fight off any sudden illness, and then later that she’d feed them the wrong thing. It had been difficult, but they had made it through.
Both Kal-El and Richard could do amazing things, were so much larger than life, but she had been there and held the twins when neither man had ever laid eyes on them. And that they did remember, and it did matter even now that they were almost grown, touched her deeper than anything had ever before. It was worth it; every single instant of their childhood was worth it to have the two of them here and with her now, as beautiful and healthy and strong as they were. She wasn’t even trying to hide the tears trailing down her cheeks when she looked up at Jason and Kala, her smile bright and almost shy as she held her arms out for them both.