Kala opened the apartment door and Kristin sauntered in ahead of her. The Lane-Kents were watching Little K for a week, while Lana and Richard drove home, making every hotel stop between Smallville and Metropolis into a tenth-anniversary celebration. Or so Kala had overheard Lois mutter wryly.
That was fine by Kala; she had her little sister mostly to herself for a week. Surely she could arrange something suitably horrifying to Lana’s sensibilities. Maybe dye Kristin’s hair again, or better yet, paint her fingernails and toenails black. With silver glitter in the top coat. Yes, now that would work, and Kristin would show off her pretty nail polish to everyone. Richard would laugh, Lana would hang her head in despair, and Kristin would think the whole thing was hilarious.
The thought entertained her until she heard a quiet giggle from down the hallway. Kala froze. She knew that laugh, and it had no place in the apartment when no one else was home. “Hey, Kristin?” she said sweetly. “Wanna watch some cartoons?”
“Mommy says I can’t watch more than two hours of TV,” the little girl worried.
“I won’t tell if you don’t,” Kala replied, adding, “Kim Possible is on.”
That was enough to send Kristin scampering happily into the living room, where Kala turned on the cartoon for her. Then the teenager headed down the hall, stealthily silent as only someone who possessed super-hearing could be.
Jason spoke, but Kala was so focused on her own sounds that she couldn’t tell what he said, just picking up the apologetic murmur of his voice. His answer sounded saccharine-sweet and almost teasing, a combination that made Kala’s stomach churn. She was close enough to Jason’s door to give up stealth and pounce.
Kala flung the door open and barged into her brother’s bedroom, bellowing, “What the hell do you think you’re doing?!” as loud as she dared. She was both sickened and relieved by what she saw.
Giselle sat up, her eyes wide with shock, but she was sitting on the side of the bed, with Jason a foot or so away. That mollified Kala’s worst fears, until she noticed that Giselle’s blouse was untucked … and Jason’s shirt was buttoned wrong. “Oh, hell no,” Kala hissed, her voice shaking with fury.
“Kal…” Jason began, his cheeks flaming red, but his girlfriend cut him off.
“Who do you think you are?” Giselle snapped. “Charging in here! God!”
“Shut the fuck up, gutter slut,” Kala snarled, and wheeled on Jason. “Better question is, where do you think you are? Jase, you know you can’t have the tramp in your room with the door closed! She’s not even supposed to be here when no one else is home!”
Giselle’s shocked expression had turned ugly with anger. “Watch your mouth,” she retorted, outraged. “You can’t talk to me like that!”
“Watch me, bitch,” Kala spat, not even bothering to look at the other girl. “Jason, yank whatever’s left of your IQ out of your pants! Mom could’ve come home any minute, and then what would you do? Or worse yet, what if I hadn’t heard the gold-digger snickering and let Kristin come up here? Wanna try explaining this to your baby sister?”
“Kal, nothing’s going on,” Jason insisted, glancing over to see Giselle’s furious and hurt expression.
Kala made a rude noise and grabbed his shirt. “Really? Because this shirt sure as hell was buttoned right earlier today. And I don’t think the blouse on her is supposed to be all untucked and riding up in the back.”
“That’s enough,” Giselle said, her voice rising shrill with outrage. “I don’t have to hear this from you, Kala – you’re no snow-white angel yourself. I can kiss your brother if I want. I’m his girlfriend – you don’t even bother to date a guy first.”
Kala’s eyes bulged, and the look she turned on Jason was murderous. “You told her about that with Dustin?!”
“No,” Jason said, blushing more fiercely. “I think she means Caleb … but while we’re talking about Dustin, Kala, you’re being a hypocrite, you know.”
“Difference is, Dustin’s a good guy – he’s been our friend forever, and he’s not trying to get into my pants,” Kala shot back.
“Wasn’t how it looked,” Jason replied hotly.
Considering that all she’d done was kiss Dustin, that was going way too far. Grinding her teeth, Kala growled, “Get out, Giselle.”
“How about you get out of my room?” Jason said. “I invited Giselle; you just practically busted the door down.”
“I’m your twin sister,” Kala retorted, “and I live here. Not to mention I sleep in here every now and then, so it’s as much my room as yours. She’s not family, she’s not supposed to be here, and she needs to leave. Now.” The look she aimed at Giselle was clearly threatening.
Jason caved. “Giselle…” he began.
She got up, yanking her blouse straight and looking at Jason with tears glittering in her eyes. “Thanks for sticking up for me,” she whispered with cutting sarcasm, and then fled the room.
Jason sighed heavily, and Kala just stood there staring at him, her arms crossed. “What the hell were you thinking?” she said, and for the first time her voice was bewildered instead of furious. “You were never this hormonally brain-damaged when you were with Elise!”
“Kala, she’s my girlfriend,” Jason explained for what seemed the thousandth time. “I’m not going back to Elise, so get over it, okay?”
Kala sat down heavily beside him, rubbing her temples in exasperation. “She’s gonna hurt you, Jase. She’s gonna hurt you bad, and you don’t even see it! I know how she acts when she’s away from you!”
“Can you blame her for being mean to you?” he retorted. “Kala, you’ve tried to run off all my girlfriends! Most of them either hate you or they’re scared of you.”
“I don’t care that she hates me, you twit,” Kala exclaimed. “She’s not good enough for you! None of them were, really, except maybe Elise. Your problem is, you can’t just have a girlfriend – it has to be this big epic romance like Mom and Dad, and none of the girls, you couldn’t tell any of them what you’ll have to tell them.” She sighed, hugging herself, and added, “And in case you haven’t noticed, Mom and Dad’s happily-ever-after isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”
Jason echoed her sigh. Both twins knew their parents were going through a rough patch, but neither of them knew why. “She’ll probably break up with me after this,” Jason muttered gloomily. “At the very least she won’t want to come over for New Year’s.”
“What a loss,” Kala grumbled.
His patience exhausted, Jason grabbed a pillow and tossed it at her. “Stop it, Kal!” he snapped. “She’s my girlfriend! Have a little respect, okay?”
“Respect?” she retorted. “How am I supposed to respect you when you’re rolling around shirtless with that little slut?”
“I was not rolling around,” Jason growled. “Geez, Kal, all we did was kiss. Quit having a hissy fit.”
“Yeah, Mom would be so happy to know her ‘pwecious widdle boy’ was smooching Jezebel behind closed doors,” Kala said, dragging out the big guns.
“You’re not gonna tell.” Jason sat up as he said it, staring at her.
Kala let him stew for a few seconds before rolling her eyes. “No, Dopey, I’m not gonna tattle. But you listen here, Amazing Lizard Boy. Don’t let it get past kissing, okay? She’s not the one. Whether I hate her or not, you know that much is true.” Her hazel eyes stared at him challengingly.
“I know,” Jason groused. “It’s not like I’m gonna marry her or something. We’re just dating – like you and your last five boyfriends. Calm down, all right?”
Mollified for the moment by her brother’s evident sanity, Kala got up. Besides, she didn’t want to start all the nonsense about Dustin again. That had been a mistake on her part, using a good friend that way, and even though Jason and Dustin had been on speaking terms again by the time the Kents returned to Metropolis, Kala didn’t need to give her brother any more ammunition. “Fine,” she said at last. “I only worry ‘cause I love you. You know that, right, Jase?”
“Nah, you worry because you’re as neurotic as a long-tailed cat growing up in a rocking-chair factory,” Jason replied, and both twins laughed. A little less exuberantly than was normal for them, but close enough to assuage their fears. For now.
Kala left, and Jason fell back on his bed and pressed the heels of his hands against his eyes. What he wouldn’t tell his sister – or anyone else – was that it had actually been a bit more than kissing.
He’d known from the moment they got to the apartment that they were alone. That didn’t really interest him, at first; Jason was used to being trusted by his parents, and he had occasionally been alone with his other girlfriends. Knowing that his superhero father and his nosy twin sister both had sharp enough hearing to catch him even thinking about making out tended to put a damper on his romantic ambitions, anyway.
Giselle, however, had been fascinated. She was the one who’d whispered, “Let’s pretend it’s our house,” strolling into the kitchen to bring him a drink. They’d watched the news together, Giselle rubbing his shoulder while he sipped Sprite on the rocks. She’d wanted to explore the apartment, but Jason stopped her from going into Mom’s study, and somehow they had wound up in his bedroom instead.
And then he was kissing her, she was kissing him, and Jason didn’t know how he wound up lying on his side with Giselle fitting the curves of her body to his. Both her hands slid under his shirt, a little gasp of surprise from her as she discovered how toned he was beneath the slightly loose shirts he wore. Somehow buttons were being undone and she was kissing his neck and Jason caught the back of her blouse and pulled it up and bared perfect skin the color of caramel and cream, and he thought of kissing her belly, just there, and all of a sudden the world was afire…
Shock made him pull away. That and embarrassment; cuddled closely as she was, Giselle had to know what this was doing to him. He had blushed, and she had laughed, a soft knowing laugh accompanied by a wicked gleam in her eyes. “Too fast,” he’d whispered, trying to force his blood flow back into his brain.
“That’s supposed to be my line,” Giselle had purred, not backing away, just watching him with a heated look.
Jason had swallowed the sudden lump in his throat and re-buttoned his shirt clumsily. “Mom could be home any minute,” he’d explained.
Giselle had sat up at last, chuckling. “You really need to come by my house sometime,” she’d said. “Mom’s almost never home.” And then Kala had practically ripped the door off its hinges, hurling insults, and not even sweet Giselle could take that kind of abuse. Jason owed her an apology; Kala would never be sorry.
Jason groaned; it seemed like nothing was going right at the moment. His relationship with Giselle was hanging by a thread, Kala was being psychotic, and something was up with Mom and Dad. For a moment he wished he could be six again and free of worrying about it all. Six years old, everything his parents did was incomprehensible, but he expected it to be because they were adults, almost another species. And at six, having a girlfriend meant holding hands at recess. So much easier than his life now…
But at six, he hadn’t had the powers, and he’d been sick so often it was a surprise to wake up feeling great after that first sunbath with Dad. Jason sighed heavily, thinking that there were advantages to growing up. He just wished the disadvantages weren’t so obvious.
Lois had arrived home to a fairly subdued house, and after greeting all three children she’d gone up into the study with a cup of coffee and her messenger bag in tow and closed the door behind her, showing no signs of her inner excitement to anyone. It was only when she was alone that she closed her eyes, leaning back against the cool wood of the door with a steely determination. Calming her racing mind before starting her nightly round of research was the top priority at the moment. Being this close, knowing which files were in her bag, it would be all too easy to get overly-excited and let some of the information she had been digging for, any of the information she’d been digging for, slip around the wrong person. And that couldn’t happen, not when she was this close…
Taking a deep breath, she pulled her hair out of the French twist it was currently braided into as she made her way to her desk, kicking her heels off as she pulled the desk chair out and booted up the laptop. She made herself take her time, knowing that Clark was in meetings with his department heads most of the afternoon to discuss the new upgrades and changes that were coming up in the New Year. Lois herself had done it the moment she had returned to work, City being informed as soon as she had dropped her purse in her office and made sure that all of her people had made it in. Clark, on the other hand, had been trying to balance the return to both of his ‘jobs’ at the same time, to the point that three days had passed before he had been able to get around to the ‘urgent’ meeting with only a day before he had to sign off on it. What was worse, his promise of being with the family without running off to rescue had only lasted until the plane had landed back in New Troy and then they had been back to sudden absences that they would have to explain to Kristin at a moment’s notice.
Didn’t it occur to him that she couldn’t always explain his long lunches away, especially long lunches that didn’t include his wife or any other management at the paper? When he had been a reporter, the sudden departures had just enhanced his reputation, most especially because he nearly always had a story to cover those disappearances. Now it just looked like a lack of interest in his position. Such a shame that he has to decide whether the JLA or the Daily Planet should come first. Never mind that he has a family to worry about; they’ll understand the same way they always have. Good thing his wife’s an amazing liar and an absolute saint. She felt contempt rise in her, but stifled it. She was a hero’s wife, something she had been more than willing to become, and she knew better than to dwell on this. What good would it do? Unhappy or not, she had made her choice.
Besides, this wasn’t helping, letting herself get wrapped up in this. Better to think on something else, like how odd it was to be home this early and with only her current project. Both she and Clark were taking half-days until after the first of the month, due to their having Kristin until her parents made it in from their ‘second honeymoon’, driving Richard’s convertible back to Metropolis from Kansas. Her husband had referred to it as the scenic route, although she herself called it the ‘sex drive’ and had told the pair of them so the last time they called. Still remembering the way Lana had squawked over that had her grinning to herself as she dropped into the chair and pulled the files out of her bag.
After this afternoon’s trip into the archives, Lois was eager to match the articles she’d copied with the information on the flash drive she’d finally wheedled out of Erik Eastlake. Proprietary information on L-Tech, all the accounting stuff that was presented to the shareholders and not the general public, as well as the blurbs from research and development that the company used to secure more capital. Erik had made as if to hand her flash drive, then jerked it back teasingly, giving Lois a wide grin. “They told us we’re not to share this information with anyone except our spouses,” he’d said flirtatiously.
Lois had tilted her head to the side, giving him a look that broadcast oh, come on louder than any words. Her answering smile was the bait he couldn’t resist, and he’d put the flash drive into her hands. The triumph in Lois’ eyes had unnerved him a little, and he had asked, “You’re sure you’re not doing an exposé on the company?”
Since Lois had no intention of sharing the information she was gleaning, she’d been completely truthful in answering, “Of course not.” Then she’d had to embroider her story a little, since Eastlake wouldn’t be so cooperative if he realized she was using him to hunt her old enemy, Lex Luthor, who in his hubris could not resist naming the company after his initials, who had called the breakthrough processor the KAL chip just to aggravate Lois.
“It would do the Planet a lot of good to upgrade, if L-Tech is as advanced as you say,” Lois had lied blithely. “But we’re also talking about a huge amount of money and prestige for them if we decide to convert to their product. If we take that step, L-Tech will also start getting a lot of business from our subsidiaries – and our competition. Raines at the Star won’t be left too far behind if she can help it. A lot rides on this, Erik. I won’t risk my paper’s reputation dealing with a company I know next to nothing about.” He had acquiesced, asking only if she could keep a secret. Lois had grinned knowingly and purred, “You’d be amazed the kinds of secrets I can keep.” That, at least, was the pure truth. Eastlake hadn’t the slightest clue about Clark’s alter ego.
“Lo-Lo?” The plaintive little voice fractured Lois’ concentration just as she was beginning to scroll through the list of documents on the flash drive. Kristin stood in the doorway, looking mournful. “Can I color in here?”
“Sure, cuddlebug,” Lois said, stretching a hand out to the little girl. It had wounded her that she and Clark were unable to have any more children, and when Lucy and Loueen and Lana all turned up pregnant in the same year, the reporter had been almost sick with envy. But this red-haired little sweetheart helped ease some of those regrets. Kristin was touchingly devoted to all four of her parents and to her two older siblings, an affection that resulted in some odd questions when kids in her school were asked to draw pictures of their family, but brought only joy to those who loved her.
Kristin climbed happily into Lois’ lap for a hug, paying not even cursory attention to the lines of text on the computer screen. “I think Jason an’ Kala are ‘noring me,” she sighed, leaning in to let the reporter hold her. “’Cept Kala told me it wasn’t my fault; she just doesn’t feel good. I think they had a fight. Jason’s girlfriend was here and Kala was actin’ mad when she left. Jason never came out of his room.”
Lois noted that, but she trusted her son even if she didn’t particularly trust Giselle. The girl’s presence would obviously have provoked a typically outrageous display of temper from Kala, which explained the fight. “Sometimes brothers and sisters argue,” Lois told the youngest, stroking Kristin’s incredibly soft hair back from her freckled face. “They’ll get over it and make up soon enough.”
“I won’t ever fight with ‘em,” Kristin declared from her perch, squeezing Lois’ neck in a tight hug. “I’m always gonna be a good frien’ and the bestest l’il sister ever.”
“I’m sure you will, honey,” Lois murmured, kissing the top of her head before leaning her cheek there. The cherry scent of the little girl’s hair made her smile, the tradition of smelly shampoo Richard had started with the twins continuing. A sharp pang of longing in her heart reminded her of the endless but harmless bickering the twins had done when they were Kristin’s age. Now it seemed all they did was fight, not simply quarrel, and they had expanded their targets to their parents.
More specifically, to Lois herself. Jason and Kala were both still too in awe of their father’s reputation to argue with Superman, and their attempts to embroil Richard or Lana in the strife had been singularly unsuccessful. It was Lois who took the brunt of their belligerence, especially from Kala, although Jason had been temperamental a time or two as well.
Although in Kala’s defense, the teenager had come to Lois after Christmas and apologized. “I was a shithead,” Kala had murmured guiltily, putting the required quarter for the cursing jar in Lois’ hand. Looking wounded, the girl had held her arms out and asked, “Can I get a hug?” Lois loved her daughter as much as she had the first moment those unfocused blue eyes had looked up at her in the delivery room, and she’d held Kala tight. Things between them had been rather better than usual since then, and the two had even spent an evening cuddling on the couch, eating popcorn, and watching old Banacek reruns.
In memory of that moment of increasingly rare connection with her daughter, Lois squeezed Kristin a little tighter. The redhead squirmed and Lois let up, setting Kristin down beside her. “Do you want to use my colored pens?” Lois asked, and got an enthusiastic agreement. Wondering why office pens and highlighters were so attractive when crayons were available, Lois set up the youngest child with paper and pens and let Kristin curl up on the couch to draw.
The reporter returned her attention to the documents in front of her. She delved first into some of the research and development, but it was so jargon-laden that her head began to hurt on the second page. Lois had taken some night classes on computers and networking years ago, not wanting to leave vital skills out of her journalistic portfolio, but this was far beyond her. And far beyond most of the men investing in it as well, she thought. Documents like this existed to impress, not to edify, and Lois skimmed through them before returning to something she knew.
One of Perry’s many axioms was When in doubt, follow the money. Lois began untangling the financial reports, looking for unusual fluctuations in revenue and large investments of capital. It seemed that L-Tech had been in existence for ten years, another point of concurrence with her suspicions, but for the first five it operated at a loss. Vast sums were poured into R&D but the company applied for no patents and marketed no products. Frustratingly, the first few reports didn’t track the source of the capital.
Then Lois struck pay dirt, and only Kristin’s presence kept her from shouting her triumph. L-Tech had recognized some of its ‘key contributors’ when the first patents were applied for and the revenue began to roll in. It was a long list, populated by investment firms instead of individuals, but it was a lead.
Halfway down the page Lois saw the name Eagle Capital Investments, Incorporated. That was the same firm to which Erik and his father belonged, the one that held a large stake in the Daily Planet. Lois’ journalistic instinct awoke, sniffing like a bloodhound on the trail. She’d thought it a stroke of luck that someone who held stock in her paper was able to give her information on L-Tech, but what if it was more than mere coincidence? So far she had no evidence to support that, but her hunches were rarely wrong.
Lois pulled out the articles the Daily Planet had run on ECI Inc, especially the ones from before the firm’s investment in the newspaper. Within half an hour of eye-straining reading, she hit the jackpot. Lois’ diligence was rewarded with another stock investment company, one that had infused lots of capital into ECI Inc and might still hold a controlling interest: Vanderworth Holdings Limited. The name meant that, whether or not Lex had been involved before the events surrounding Kal-El’s return, Luthor certainly now had his talons in … the Daily Planet?!
Fear turned Lois’ spine to ice, and she began cross-checking more information, looking for concrete evidence. She became absorbed in her work, delighting in that old sizzle along the nerve endings that meant she was on a hot story, and never noticed the passage of daylight across the wall or the way that Kristin eventually dropped off to sleep. Lois’ trance didn’t break until the study door opened, and she jumped a little, suddenly noticing how dark it had gotten. On the heels of that came a headache from staring at the computer screen for so long.
“I brought you a drink,” Clark said gently, smiling at her. His expression faltered slightly when she hurriedly closed the laptop, but Lois counted on her lifelong habit of guarding her sources to protect her. Clark couldn’t know yet; he still didn’t know about the deal she’d made with Luthor. He couldn’t know until she’d tracked down the megalomaniac and presented all her information to Clark, trussed up like a Thanksgiving turkey.
“Thank you,” Lois murmured as he set down the drink. She stretched, feeling her back pop, and glanced over at Kristin who was snoring contentedly. A look of regret passed her features when it truly hit home how long she’d been riveted. “I think I let the little one sleep through dinner…”
“The other two had catch and fetch,” Clark said dryly, kissing Lois’ hair. “Leftover macaroni and pierogies, by the smell, with alfredo sauce on the whole mess.”
“Yuck,” Lois groaned, making a face at the thought. “Thank God for their lightning-fast metabolisms or else they’d be up all night. I guess I should get Kristin up and make something.”
“I brought a couple pizzas home. She can have a slice, and so can you if you beat the super-metabolism twins to it.”
So that’s why he didn’t feel the need to come get Kristin before now. Why am I not surprised? Fighting to keep the trickle of annoyance out of her voice, she commented lightly. “Oh, did you just get in?”
“I’ve been here a while.” Just as she had expected it to be, the answer was evasive, smooth. Not entirely unexpected, either; their verbal fencing had been more like a jousting tournament lately. “I just didn’t want to disturb you. You haven’t moved for four hours, Lois – have a drink, have some pizza, and turn off the computer for the night. I promise not to scoop you.” With that he slid his arms around her, nuzzling her hair, and Lois reached up to take comfort in his warmth and strength. After a moment, Clark continued, “I’ll take Kristin downstairs, get her dinner, and get her settled in for the night. You take care of yourself – I won’t have my wife wasting away to nothing for the sake of a story.”
His tone wasn’t exactly critical, but she couldn’t help the guilt she felt at his words. That was the worst part of this: wanting to share the triumph of her discovery with him and knowing full well that she didn’t dare. As he moved away from her, she watched his back with a melancholy expression. I want to tell you, Kal-El; if you had the slightest idea why I’m doing this, you’d understand. I’m trying to protect you and the twins in my own way. When I’m finished with Luthor, I’ll have enough evidence against him that he’ll never get out of prison again, no matter what trick he tries. And I’ll never have another nightmare of losing any of three of you again, the way I have for the last ten years. I made things safe and now I’m going to make things right. All I can hope is that you’ll see why I did this.
In the end, knowing that she had no choice but to keep her silence for now, Lois sighed. When he turned with Kristin curled in his arms, prepared to take the little one downstairs, Lois simply turned back around to face the computer and all she could say was, “Yes, dear.”