The hour was growing late, and Jason and Giselle had drifted away from the main party. They were the only teenagers there, after all, and even on their best behavior they could only pass for adults for a little while. Jason found them a sheltered little nook from which they could observe their elders without feeling like they were underfoot, and for a while they just relaxed, enjoying each other’s company.
Jason started to get up to refill their sparkling white grape juice, but Giselle beat him to it. “You got the last refill,” she said, taking his glass and giving him a bright smile. Jason let her, sighing as she walked away. At least she’d forgiven him for earlier this week. Giselle wasn’t ready to forgive Kala, though, and Jason couldn’t blame her for that.
Fortunately, she was more willing to accept his flaws. Although she was a little distracted at first, as the evening grew later Giselle was once more her usual sweet, affectionate self. They’d talked about a lot of things, including future plans; lunch tomorrow at first, and then further ahead. The Davenports were going to Star City in the spring, and Giselle had hinted that Jason might be invited. That thrilled him – her mom was a little hard to read at times, but such an invitation demonstrated trust quite clearly.
Giselle came back with two glasses, handing one to Jason as she sat down beside him. He slid his arm around her shoulder, kissed her cheek, and sipped the grape juice…
…which wasn’t grape juice. “Um, Giselle,” he began.
“Yes, silly, it’s the champagne,” she whispered. “No one cares. It’s not like half a glass will hurt … and I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but all the grownups are drinking the really hard stuff.” She took a sip of champagne and licked her lips.
She had a point; champagne wasn’t going to harm Jason’s half-Kryptonian metabolism. Besides, his parents had often allowed him and Kala a few sips of wine with dinner, or a scant quarter-glass of champagne at New Year’s. All four of them agreed that it was better to allow the kids to taste alcohol in a low-key, parentally-supervised setting, than to prohibit it and have drinking become an object of fascination. Too many teenagers, entranced by the lure of the forbidden, wound up binge-drinking at parties and doing stupid, dangerous things.
Jason sipped at the champagne. “You’re right,” he said, and turned the conversation back to spring break. Giselle leaned against him with a happy sigh, and he draped his arm around her shoulders. She felt so right in his arms; this was the perfect New Year’s Eve, with all the convivial party sounds going on around them, but a little oasis of quiet in which they could talk and cuddle.
Nick was definitely the best kisser Kala knew; he took his time, never rushed her, kissed her softly and slowly and thoroughly until she felt absolutely indolent. He showed none of the nervousness that she usually got from boys, none of the silly nose-bumping or awkward laughter.
He kissed her jaw, tilting her face away, and moved to nuzzle her neck. Kala tensed; every other boy who’d tried that wound up tickling her. But Nick didn’t try grazing on her neck. He kissed her there, his lips firm on her skin, and moved down a little further from the curve of her jaw before kissing her again.
Kala stretched, offering him her neck; that felt good. Nick pulled her a little closer and kissed the place where her neck met her shoulder. Kala gasped and shivered, and then he was mouthing that same spot, and somehow the next few minutes became a blur. Kala was lost in a warm fog, Nick’s lips and hands weaving a spell around her.
“So beautiful,” he whispered, his voice half-breathless and dreamy.
Kala smiled, turning to kiss his neck, running her fingers through his hair. Now he was the one lost in his feelings, and she’d caught him at last. This was the same game she’d been playing all along, only with high school boys the stakes never went higher than kisses. Nick was older, the stakes were higher, but Kala was winning just the same. She had him wrapped around her finger, whispering words of adoration in her ear, and he’d do anything for her.
Time no longer mattered. The fact that Nick wasn’t exactly her boyfriend didn’t matter either, and the knowledge that her family had no idea where she or who she was with also seemed far less important. All of that had been swept away by her feelings of triumph – Kala had not only wowed the crowd at Fuel, she’d also managed to put her spell on Nick. She laughed softly, nuzzling his cheek, so proud and confident that she felt as if she could handle anything…
…until she felt his hand slip around her knee, tugging her toward him. Nick meant to pull her onto his lap, and that realization hit Kala like ice water in her veins. This was not some high school boy she was playing with; Nick might be expecting more, much more than she was prepared to give. Worse, she’d led him to this, encouraged him, challenged him, practically demanded that he treat her like a woman his own age. And now here she was, and did she really think he’d stop at this?
Some Kryptonian noble you are, a cold voice sneered from the back of her mind. Rutting in the front seat of a near-stranger’s car like the stupidest of human girls. All it took for him to get you was applause, dinner, and a little flattery, too. Grandfather would be so proud.
All of that happened in an instant. “Whoa,” Kala said shakily, pulling away. “Presumptuous much?”
Nick took his hands off her immediately, looking down and biting his lip. “You’re right,” he said, his voice strained. “That’s way too fast. Kala…” He met her eyes, and there was embarrassment there, but also warmth. “I’m sorry.”
She didn’t know whether to accept his apology, offer one of her own, or demand haughtily to be taken home. Kala’s mind whirled with confusing emotions and the nagging sense that she was far out of her depth. She didn’t know what to do; she’d never been in this situation before, never lost her mind over a guy.
The decision was taken from her, however, by a loud explosion that buffeted the car windows. Kala whirled, her stomach sinking, and saw the first burst of fireworks shimmering over the river. Fireworks that were supposed to go off exactly at midnight … and her curfew was eleven-thirty.
“Oh, fuck,” she moaned, and dove out of Nick’s car in sheer panic.
The clock struck twelve, the huge lighted ball on Carlin Publishing Tower dropped, and thousands of people in Centennial Square went wild, cheering and laughing and kissing each other. The first volley of fireworks burst into starry glory over the river, and bands struck up Auld Lang Syne.
But on the rooftop terrace of the Reeve Plaza building, there was no holiday cheer. Lois had held on, knowing Kal-El would show up at the last minute, ready to be mad at him but knew she would forgive him for a New Year’s kiss. When Kala’s curfew came and went, Lois firmly shoved that knowledge aside. The traffic was horrendous, and besides, she was with Sebast. A lecture tomorrow and a couple days’ restriction ought to be enough. She had so much more to worry about than Kala blowing off curfew a little on a night like this, her mind returning to that yearning plea for Kal-El to just get home in time.
The reporter wrapped her immense will around one thought – Kal-El would come home. Late, of course, but he would show up just in the nick of time, like he always did. She wouldn’t have to leave with this gnawing ache any longer – tonight she’d show him how much she appreciated him, and tomorrow they’d talk. About Luthor, about promises made to keep a family safe, about secrets borne in silence for a decade. He would show up at the last minute … he would…
But he didn’t. Lois went numb with shock. For the first time, Kal-El had failed to be there when she really, truly needed him. She was alone, on New Year’s Eve, while the fireworks flared and all her friends kissed their loved ones. Even Jason had his girlfriend here, but Lois’ husband was missing.
Richard and Lana had never left her side, and they both saw the look on her face. Both of them had been secretly hoping that Clark would make a surprise reappearance at the last second; if he could deal with a volcanic eruption on his wedding day, surely he could handle whatever this was before midnight?
But to their dismay, Clark didn’t show. Richard and Lana looked at each other as everyone else turned to the hostess. Lois had frozen, wide-eyed, looking as if she didn’t know where she was. Before the questions started, someone had to do something…
Richard caught Lois and kissed her full on the lips. That at least got her attention; he felt her gasp and start to tremble in his arms. He was shocked to realize how close to tears she was; when he stepped back from the kiss, he cupped her face to hide her expression from the other guests. “Don’t worry, I’ll bill Clark for my stand-in services,” he said, in almost his usual bantering tone.
Jason had noticed something wrong, and he came to kiss his mother’s cheek. He looked concerned; neither his father nor his sister had made it home by midnight. “Love you, Mom,” he said softly, glancing from her to Richard. Giselle hovered behind him, her worried gaze flickering between all the adults.
“The three of you, scram,” Lana said, laughing about as naturally as Richard. “Lois, go get off your feet; you’ve been up all day. I’ll handle this.”
Lois went without protest, darting a pained glance at Lana while Richard shepherded her into the house. The rest of the guests were all looking at Lana now, with varying degrees of puzzlement in their expressions. “Is she all right?” Ian asked – the only person in the group who didn’t already know the answer.
Lana took a deep breath before saying, “She’s fine. Just exhausted; it’s been a long week for her, trying to get everything done between the holidays.” She forced another chuckle before adding, “Lois actually went in and did a full day of work today, and Clark’s out chasing stories past midnight. Kind of tells you how much ambition runs in the family.”
Most of them chuckled politely, and accepted Lana’s excuses for ending the party early. Tobie, however, hugged Lana a moment longer than usual, whispering in her ear, “Find out what’s going on, Red, and share with us, dammit.” Lana gave her a smile that hopefully promised full disclosure, when Lana intended no such thing.
Giselle had planned to stay until one in the morning, and her mom wouldn’t be able to pick her up much earlier than that with this traffic. She sat next to Jason on the sofa and rubbed his shoulders, trying to soothe him. He fidgeted nervously, constantly looking toward the master bedroom, where Richard had taken Lois. The door was closed, but Jason could easily have seen and heard what was going on – he just didn’t want to know, shaken to the core of his soul by the distress in his mother’s eyes.
Lois pressed the back of her hand against her mouth, unwilling to sob where her guests – and her son – could hear her. Richard sat beside her on the edge of the bed, holding her, rubbing her back in slow circles. “Hey, babe, it’s okay,” he whispered, and kissed her temple. She shivered again, and her hand was cold on his arm. “It’s okay. Lois, don’t. It’s gonna be okay.”
Lana had managed to get everyone out, and she went toward the bedroom with a purposeful stride. “Lana?” Jason whispered urgently.
“What is it?” she asked, keeping her voice as low as his as she stopped to stroke his hair. The poor boy was almost as distraught as his mother, and Lana tried to reassure him with a smile.
It wasn’t working. “It’s past midnight,” he replied, “and Kala’s curfew was eleven-thirty.” He glanced worriedly at the bedroom door, and Giselle leaned in to hug him.
“She and Sebast are probably just stuck in traffic,” Lana said, but he’d seen her anxious glance at the clock. “I’m going to talk to Lois… Giselle, honey, I’m sorry to cut your evening short, but do you think you could call your mother?”
“She’s at a party,” Giselle replied, biting her lip. “She said she’d be here in time to pick me up, but I can’t reach her before then.”
Lana’s auburn brows lifted a little. No cell phone? No way for her teenage daughter to get in touch? Well, it wasn’t how Lana would raise her children, but Justine’s parenting decisions were none of her business. “All right,” Lana said. “We’ll see what we can do. I’ll be right back.”
With that, she turned and went into the bedroom, feeling Jason’s eyes on her. Lana closed the door behind her, and went to kneel in front of Lois, looking up at the reporter. “Sweetheart, are you all right?” she asked.
“Fine,” Lois said, her voice hoarse from trying not to cry. “I’m fine, Lana. I’m just being stupid.”
Richard and Lana exchanged a disbelieving look. They’d watched her all night, and they knew her well enough to see past her glib façade. Maybe we waited too long, both of them thought at the same moment, and Richard jostled Lois lightly. “Hey now. Watch your mouth – that’s my ex you’re talking about.”
“You’re far from stupid,” Lana said, her voice low and soothing. “I’ve heard plenty of words used to describe you, some of them profane, but no one ever calls you stupid. Tell me what’s going on.”
Lois dashed tears from her eyes and straightened her shoulders. “I’m okay,” she insisted, taking a deep breath.
“And I’m the queen of England,” Lana said, giving her a stern look. “Lois, there’s nothing in the world you can’t talk to me and Richard about. We know all each other’s secrets, remember?”
A harsh bark of laughter was her only answer at first, then Lois gave her a very dubious look.
Kala had to stop. She was panting so harshly she couldn’t hear anything but her own breath. It was easy for her to run fast, but this was faster than she’d ever even imagined she could go, so fast the people she ran past had trouble seeing her. It helped that most of them had been drinking, but even so, this was a new speed record for her.
The problem was, she couldn’t keep that pace. Her legs ached, her lungs burned, and a sudden sharp pain in her side brought her to a staggering halt, still miles from home. Kala leaned against a lamppost, trying to catch her breath.
The boots weren’t helping; now that she’d stopped running, her feet throbbed. Kala yanked her boots off as soon as she could, and held them in one hand. I’m late, she thought. I’m late, Mom’s gonna kill me. I have to get to Dad first – he’ll understand. Even if I have to tell him what I was doing, the edited version anyway, he’ll understand why I’m late. But Mom will kill me for breaking curfew. She’s been waiting for a chance to blow up at me.
She couldn’t think about what had just happened in the car with Nick. Kala was already revolted at her own lack of control, blaming herself for everything. She’d behaved like any stupid little teenager, naïve and selfish, and all of her pride in her singing evaporated when she realized where that feeling of triumph had led her.
Gasping, she forced herself back into a run, her hose tearing against the concrete sidewalk. The only thought that remained in her head was Gotta get home.
Only three fatalities, Kal-El thought, closing his eyes and letting the water spray directly onto his face. The decontamination shower probably wasn’t necessary, but he was taking no chances. Right now his uniform was being decontaminated as well.
Unlike many movies, the experts on the situation recommended cleaning intact skin with plain old soap and water. So the employee locker rooms of a nearby and still intact reactor building had been commandeered; they were intended to be used for primary decontamination anyway.
Only three, he told himself, but knew it wasn’t the whole story. Some employees had remained at their posts, trying to shutdown the reactor, and they had likely absorbed fatal doses of radiation. It might take a few days, a few weeks, or even a few years, but anyone with that much exposure would eventually succumb. Kal-El couldn’t let himself think about that, however. There were things in the world that he could not fix, people he could not save, but he had never been able to surrender gracefully. Conceding the point to death or fate simply wasn’t in his nature.
Finished with his shower, Kal-El checked himself for any lingering radiation and found none. He found his uniform waiting in the next room, and dressed quickly, heading to the rest of the team. Fortunately, the public was giving them enough privacy that they could debrief without being overheard.
They were in varying states of exhaustion and unbalance; the Justice League of America did not, as a rule, accept failure lightly, and for them any casualties were failures. Bruce was positively livid over being forced to wait on the sidelines when lives were at stake, but with the high doses of radiation, even a protective suit might not have been enough to keep him safe. He knew it, and kept silent, but Kal-El knew the set of his mouth boded ill for anyone who crossed him in the near future. Hal and J’onn were both taking it quietly, introspective looks on their faces.
And Diana was scowling as she toweled the excess water out of her hair. “It was human error,” she told Kal-El. “A simple mistake. One order misinterpreted, and then everything afterward came from the assumption that the first order had been followed correctly. One small mistake, one technician tired or bored or distracted.”
“It’s not as bad as it could have been,” Kal-El told her. The Amazon was as sensitive to perceived failure as any of them, and she sometimes tended to take a larger share of the responsibility than was actually hers. “If you hadn’t gotten the sluice gates open when you did, we could’ve had another steam explosion to deal with.”
The three immediate fatalities had been a result of that first explosion, and all of them knew that a second, larger explosion would have cost even more lives. “We cannot prevent every accident,” Kal-El said, meeting each League member’s gaze in turn. “Our job is to help humankind, not to micromanage all of their affairs. None of us could have predicted this. All we could do is save as many as we could, and prevent any further catastrophe at this site. We did our best. People are alive today who wouldn’t be here without us.”
“You sure you’re a reporter and not a spin doctor?” Bruce asked, a hint of frustration in his voice.
“Bruce,” Diana warned.
“Seriously,” Bruce interrupted. “They say what you do on New Year’s Day you’ll do for the rest of the year. This isn’t exactly my idea of a great time, and I did have plans for this evening. Zee’s in town.” Only Kal-El saw Diana’s eyebrows lift slightly, but she made no commentary.
Kal-El himself had to force down a grin. Always so focused on the mission, brusque and uncompromising on duty, Bruce only allowed himself to feel irritated after the fact for the interruption in his plans. As rarely as he took time off, it must have been very frustrating for the Dark Knight to have walked out on Zatanna, and then have to take a supporting role in the mission on top of that. At least she’s JLA reserve, Kal-El thought. Bruce can expect to go home to some understanding instead of… He forced himself to break that line of thought.
Kal-El settled for reminding his friend, “Bruce, ‘they’ also say you’re an empty-headed playboy who’s managed to burn down his own mansion, wreck several cars, and waste fantastic amounts of money. I wouldn’t trust ‘them’ that much.”
That got a tired chuckle from them all, and Kal-El continued, “Besides, in North America, it’s not midnight yet.”
“Actually, Clark, it’s already twenty minutes past on the east coast,” Hal corrected with a shrug.
Kal-El groaned and turned his hearing toward the party he’d missed, expecting to hear a thorough tongue-lashing from Lois. She had a right to be upset; in the middle of the rescue, he’d realized that he had forgotten to tell her where he was going and what was at stake.
The sound that actually came to his ears from across the thousands of miles was far different from the angry, muttered curses he expected. The rest of the team saw him go suddenly pale and wide-eyed as he whispered, “Oh, God…”