Perry White watched Lois sitting at her desk. He was really amazed that Kent hadn’t forced her to take the day off; she carried all the usual Lane signs of hellacious night. Skillful makeup failed to hide the shadows beneath her eyes, and the tension in her shoulders was visible from across the office. She hadn’t spoken to her own husband when she got in, and for once, Clark hadn’t even tried to talk to her, either. That, in itself, was like a sign of the apocalypse.
But the other signs of her mental state were twice as obvious. Lois slammed the story she was reading down on her desk, snatching it up again to storm out into the bullpen. Bill Freizon saw her coming and looked terrified, glancing around for an excuse to leave. It was too late, however; Mad Dog Lane bore down on him and started snarling, her gestures full of fire.
After a few minutes of Bill looking like a cat in a downpour, Perry decided to intervene. He strolled across the bullpen until he got to Freizon’s desk, realizing as he got closer that Lois was actually chewing the poor man out over punctuation.
He couldn’t resist a snort of laughter. Whatever was eating her this morning was more than she could easily tolerate, it looked like. Well, at least she wasn’t keeping it bottled up this time. “C’mon, Lane,” Perry bellowed affectionately. “Enough fire and brimstone.”
“For the love of…” Still growling, Lois swung around to glare those hazel eyes at Perry. “Don’t even start, old man. Bill’s worked here for thirty years, he was a senior reporter when I was in the frikkin’ mail room, he lives by words, and he can’t remember when not to put an apostrophe in ‘its’?! What the hell kind of paper are we running here?” Bill looked thoroughly horrified at this diatribe, eyeing Perry with a pleading look the older man hadn’t seen in years.
Perry couldn’t help himself. “This from the woman who wears one and still can’t spell ‘brassiere’. In my office.”
Lois’ laser-eyed stare narrowed on him, but his assistant stalked after him without a further word. Perry could feel her seething gaze on his back, heard how heavily her footsteps were coming down, and grinned to himself. He sat down behind his desk, fiddled with a few papers, and let Lois’ wrath come to a frothing head before acknowledging her again. Even then, he just glanced up at her and looked at the chair across from him.
With an extremely disgruntled growl, Lois dropped into it, the chair giving out a protesting squeak, and crossed her arms to continue her glaring. Perry let her simmer another moment before looking up. “Lois. When I told you to be more proactive in the editorial aspect of your job, I didn’t mean for you to scare the bejeesus out of your employees.” Thinking of something Bill and Gil used to like to tease Lois with back in the day – before she was management – he added, “What’s got your thong in a twist?”
Lois took a long breath, sounding a little like a kettle about to boil as she inhaled. “Very funny, Chief,” she ground out.
“So talk to me,” he retorted. “What the hell is going on with you?”
Perry didn’t miss the way her hand went to the chain around her neck, fingers winding around that topaz locket with her thumb worrying the smooth backing. The newest of her nervous fidgets was the most obvious and the most telling of her mental state, though he doubted she realized it. “How many years do I have to explain it all?” she shot back.
In all of his years with Lois, he knew all too well that the best way to get the truth out of her was to unbalance her. It was only with the slightest regret that he struck at the easiest target. “Not so many as you used to,” Perry said deftly, his voice perfectly calm. “I’m not getting any younger, Lois. And no matter how well I follow my cardiologist’s instructions…”
And as unstable as that topic made her, for he had known it all along, he saw Lois blanch at that before she could guard herself. Lois cut him off. “Don’t start. I mean, Perry. You’re healthy as a horse, and Loueen has a vested interest in keeping you that way.”
Perry did something then that he hadn’t done since she was sixteen and anxious as hell at her first job. He leaned across the table and took her hand, her delicate fingers in his sure grip. Only it wasn’t quite as sure as it had once been; few people would’ve noticed the difference, but Lois did, marking the stiffness in the joints, and her eyes widened. “Don’t be afraid,” Perry said, his voice gentle. “Part of life is losing the people you love, Lois. Elinore knew that.”
“Perry, stop it.” Her voice was choked, a plea to bury this topic again.
“You’re trying so damn hard to protect me,” Perry said relentlessly, and saw her eyes widen with guilty surprise. He chuckled. “Kid, I know you. I know how your mind works. You’re trying to keep me in this office as long as you can by not stepping up to your job. And it’s your job, Lois. I’ve been grooming you for it since you walked in here, a pretty little sixteen year old with the balls to ask me for a job.
“I never gave you any handouts; I was tougher on you than anyone else. By the time you hit the City beat you were a fireball, unstoppable. I threw you into the lion’s den with these backstabbing bastards in the old boys’ club, and you came out on top. Hell, they’re all terrified of you now, have been ever since you made star reporter.
“And you made that on your own – you went out and got your hands dirty, rolled in the worst this city had to offer, anything to get the story. But you never lost your integrity. You can’t be bribed, you can’t be swayed, you can’t be scared off a story.” Perry leaned back to look at her.
“You are the Planet, Lois,” he said firmly. “As long as you’re in this office, my paper will stand for the same things it’s always stood for.”
Lois blinked, her eyes shining, and Perry grinned wolfishly. “That doesn’t mean I have any plans of retiring soon – I’m not giving you this desk, Lane, you’ll have to pry it out of my cold dead hands. But I’ll damn sure know when they cart me out of here on a covered stretcher that the paper will be taken care of right.”
“Do you have to see through me so well, you crusty old bastard?” Lois said, her lip trembling.
“Well, I practically made you who you are today,” he said. “And you were already more like me than is really healthy. All I have to do is look in a mirror.”
“I love you, you sonofabitch,” Lois muttered, flatly denying the tears on her cheeks.
“Love you too, you hotheaded pain in the ass,” Perry replied lovingly. “Lois, you’re holding yourself back – you’re trying too hard not to step on my toes as assistant editor, and you’re backing off being a reporter, too. You can do both, to an extent; those jaded hacks will respect you more if they see you down in the trenches with them. But you’ve got to quit pussy-footing around the management stuff.”
“Dammit, I don’t want to cross you,” Lois argued, brusquely rubbing her cheeks. “Look at that bullshit with Ames the other day.”
He frowned at her, making his disapproval clear. “Since when were you a coward? So you screw up something I set up. What’s the worst that’ll happen, we’ll yell at each other? Damn, Lois, we do that every friggin’ day. Lord knows you rain fire and destruction over in International when you and Kent run afoul of each other, and you’re sleeping with him. How come I’m so special you won’t fight with me anymore?”
Lois just looked down, and he read shame in her eyes. “Speaking of Clark,” he said, too casually for her to miss his meddling, “is everything okay at home?”
That made Lois look positively ill. “I’d rather not discuss it.”
“I remember when every bit of business between the two of you got yelled across the newsroom,” Perry sighed. “From that theatrical-as-hell ‘we’re together now’ kiss on his desk to every story you two have ever fought over. As I recall, it was usually your big mouth spreadin’ the news.”
She glared at him sourly. “Chief, it’s personal,” Lois said shortly.
“Is he cheating?” Perry asked dryly, and Lois sat up abruptly, looking horrified. “Guess that’s a no. Are you cheating on him?”
“Perry!” Lois yelped.
“Well, I know he’s not hitting you, because I haven’t seen him in a cast,” Perry said drolly. “In my experience, everything else can be worked out. If you need some time off, just ask. I’m not so old I can’t still run your department for a week or two.”
“Time off is the last thing I need,” Lois retorted, her jaw set. “The mood we’re in right now, if we took a week off we’d be the front page.”
Perry caught a promising hint there; Clark had left his own New Year’s Eve party to go cover a Superman story last night. Lois’ turf, even if the story was international, and she’d been left home while he ran out and scooped her. Furthermore, the City room had been completely surprised by today’s front page story on the nuclear reactor, so Lois hadn’t even known where her husband was going until he’d already turned in his copy.
“Speaking of the front page,” Perry segued neatly, “didja see today’s? Your favorite story never gets a break, does he? Out in Russia in the middle of winter, dealing with a nuclear reactor.”
“I heard about it,” Lois said, and looked hurt. Perry figured he’d hit the nail on the head, but Lois refused to talk about it any further. Lifting her head, her expression controlled, she said quietly, “Listen, Chief, since you mention it, I need to go liaise with International about that story.”
“Go on, quit taking up my space,” Perry said, waving her out nonchalantly. Lois just scoffed as she went out the door, making a concerted effort to slam it a little bit. Only when the door closed behind her did he smile after her and murmur, “That’s my girl.”
Lois was lost in thought as she made her way over to International, trying to get all of the thoughts in her head straight before she actually had to deal with her husband face-to-face. Damn Perry for meddling like some match-making old woman, but he knew exactly what he was doing and she had to admit he was right. Something had to be done.
She’d been dreading this all morning, all the last of the evening before as well, if she was honest, and having seen the damn broadcast coverage of the meltdown from the night before only a few minutes after she’d walked into the department hadn’t helped much either. Just from the images that were shown, she understood why Kal-El had likened it to Chernobyl and had just closed her eyes in defeat. It never seemed to fail; it always came down to a sacrifice on someone’s part and lately, it had been her turn. And with good reason, she had thought as she stood alone in the empty City room, watching her husband and his teammates do the impossible. There were some things only he could do and she needed no more proof than watching him help rescue victims of the horrifying accident.
But knowing this, seeing it with her own two eyes, that didn’t change the reasoning behind what she had said last night, and reconciling both her needs and those of world was becoming impossible. And so far, trying to make her heart and head understand them just made her frustrated and angry. Something had to be done, but divorcing him wasn’t the answer, she thought as she paused outside his office and just watched him as she steeled herself. There had to be a way to scale back his involvement in his mission at least to level it had been before the League. Once upon a time, there had been time for both his career as Superman and his life with her. There had been a time when Clark had had more time for the Daily Planet. And, whether she wanted to admit to the weakness of it or not, she needed him in her life, needed him there when she couldn’t stand on her own.
The fairytale had a mass of hair-thin fractures in its surface that no one else saw, but those inside. But it wasn’t broken, not yet. Looking back on their years together, of the first rush of attraction that had gripped them the night of his first save, of her affectionate exasperation with Clark, of the adventures shared between them, how could they give that up? Despite the pain that all of this was causing her, the moments that she was having to steal back from his life as a hero; how could she give up the feel of her hands in his hair, the way he said her name, the way he had the most generous and loving heart she had ever known? From the moment she had first seen him, she had known what she wanted. And now, after all this time, she knew that hadn’t changed one iota. The question was: was that still possible?
Taking one final breath to steady herself, Lois opened the door without knocking and strode straight forward to face Clark over his desk. It took every bit of steel in her to look into those blue eyes and state, “We need to talk.”
“Yes, we do,” he said quietly, looking at her steadily. Lois didn’t know what to read in his eyes as he stepped toward her; his expression was so full of emotions she couldn’t decipher them. And then, ever so softly, he cupped her face between his hands. Strength that could bend steel and compress coal into diamond held her feather-light as Clark bent to kiss her.
Lois felt her heart twist as she lifted her lips to his. She hadn’t expected this, but was deeply grateful for it. In spite of everything, in spite of her grief and guilt and feelings of failure as a mother and wife, she still loved him, still wanted this comfort. They kissed, tenderly, and Lois wasn’t surprised to taste the salt of tears in it. But who had begun to weep, herself or Clark? Or both?
He drew back from her, his eyes glimmering. “I love you,” he said huskily. “I’ve always loved you, and I always will love you. We have to get through this, Lois. Whatever I’ve done to hurt you, I’m sorry. Whatever we need to do to make things right again, we’ll do it. Together. Always together.”
She just nodded, too overwhelmed with emotion to speak. Lois trembled, and he pulled her close, holding her. When she could finally speak, she whispered, “Love you,” and he kissed the top of her head.
Sweetly reassuring as this was, though, Lois knew she had to clear the air between them. She was still holding something back from him, and it was time to bring her investigation into Luthor out into the open. The realization, yesterday, that her fishing for information had been misinterpreted by her source had also opened her eyes to the fact that Clark had probably noticed all the time she spent with Eastlake. She had to let him know that it wasn’t what it seemed; she had no interest in the younger man, only in the clues he might possess to Luthor’s whereabouts.
And that meant telling Clark about the deal she’d made exactly ten years ago. Lois shivered again, remembering how coldly confident Luthor’s voice had been. He’d had proof both of Clark’s identity, and of the twins’ parentage, and he’d been keeping track of all of her extended family, even Ron and Lucy.
They’d faced each other in a forgotten corner of the subway on New Year’s Eve, laying all of their cards on the table, each threatening the other. If Lois had only screamed, Kal-El would have been there in an instant, and Luthor would have spent that night in prison. Since the Metropolis police had the film of him killing his henchman Riley, he’d likely be sentenced to death. The only thing keeping Lois quiet was the fact that Luthor would have ruined her family’s lives and reputations if he went to jail. He would’ve gone public with Superman’s true identity, and the twins, just starting to accept their new lifestyle, would’ve been uprooted again as the family fled from the inevitable media backlash.
Lex had been smart enough to see the situation for what it was: mutually assured destruction. He wouldn’t be alive long enough to savor his victories, so he offered to keep silent and pull his spies off the family if Lois stopped trying to find him. She’d agreed, reluctantly, choosing the lesser of two evils to keep her family safe. Lois had also insisted that Lex let Katherine Kowalski go – she’d learned that the woman had helped keep her kids safe, and from the sounds of things she had been as much a captive about that yacht as the twins were. Luthor had agreed, and they’d officially had a ceasefire – what Lois thought of as her deal with the devil.
And then Lex had kissed her. Revolted, Lois had bitten him and shoved him away, only to have him laugh in her face. His voice still mocked her from the depths of her memory. “Remember this: I could have asked for so much more. What wouldn’t you give to protect them, Lois?”
She’d been sickened, but she’d kept her word all these years, until now. Now she had proof of her own, data that would refute Luthor’s accusations, and he had been deliberately baiting her with L-Tech’s KAL processor. That had been too much for the reporter to resist, and she felt like she was very close on the madman’s trail. But she could no longer do this alone, no matter how angry Clark would be when she told him.
“Clark, there’s something I need to tell you,” Lois whispered, looking up at him worriedly.
“What is it?” he asked, stroking her face.
Lois’ cell phone rang sharply, interrupting her, and she reached for it with an obscure sort of gratitude. “Just a sec,” she murmured to Clark, and then flipped her phone open. “Lois Lane.”
Jason felt better after having lunch with Giselle. She’d managed to comfort him with the reminder that whatever Kala had been up to the previous night, it probably looked a whole lot worse than it was. “If anything, she’s always condescending to boys,” she’d said, holding Jason’s hand while they waited for their salads. “And you – her twin brother – don’t even know who this guy is. He can’t be someone important enough for her to have done more than a little necking. It’s just that she’s so pale, she shows hickies really well.”
He’d spoken to her on the phone that morning, and told her the whole story of how Kala arrived (editing out the super-speed) and the huge fight she’d gotten into with Mom, then the argument between Mom and Dad. “They might split up,” Giselle had said, her eyes sorrowful; her own parents were divorced, and she never saw her father. “But Jason, it might be for the best.”
“You don’t know them,” he’d insisted. “Love like that never ends.”
“I used to think so, too,” she’d sighed, and changed the topic. He’d wound up spending more time with her than he’d expected, and arrived home later in the afternoon.
Jason let himself in with his key and headed up to his room; it was almost time for Gazeera’s mid-afternoon snack. The lizard got plenty of fresh veggies and a commercial iguana diet first thing in the morning, but Jason also gave him a serving of fruit dusted with calcium powder. When school was in, he got that as soon as Jason arrived home, but there was no harm in giving him his treat early.
But the special cup was already inside the cage, with a few demolished fruits lying scattered nearby. Gazeera lay happily along his sunning branch, and there was a smear of something reddish-purple on his head. Jason looked closer, worried, and then recognized the substance. “Kal!” he yelled across the hall. “I told you, lipstick isn’t good for him!”
There was no answer, and Jason immediately regretted yelling. Kala had had enough of being yelled at lately. He went across the hall and knocked on her door, preparing to apologize – and just maybe, talk about last night.
The door swung inward at the first rap of his knuckles. Jason froze, an icy feeling settling in his stomach. “Kala?” he called out, listening intently for any reply. There was none … and no sound of her heartbeat, either. Not in the room, not in the house. Not in the entire apartment building.
“Oh, shit,” Jason muttered. “Kala, you idiot.” He hurried into her room, frantically looking for any clues to where she might’ve gone. Jason knew he had to get her back before Mom and Dad came home. If they found out she’d skipped out on restriction in addition to last night’s curfew-breaking, she’d be grounded ‘til she turned eighteen.
Desperate to save Kala from her own stubborn defiance, Jason looked at her desk and her bed, but found nothing. He went to her closet and flung the doors open, telling himself to look for anything unusual, anything out of place…
Her backpack, which normally hung on a hook inside the closet door, was missing. And so were some clothes. That was bad; Kala might be running off to a friend’s house, probably Sebast, and planning to stay there a few days. Jason’s heart seemed to have jumped into his throat, cutting off his air with each worried pulse. How could she be this stupid? How could she imagine this would make anything better? Kala wasn’t dumb. She should’ve known better.
He stepped away from the closet, and saw her jewelry box atop her dresser. Jason bit his lip; he wasn’t supposed to know that Kala kept her spare money in it. But some particle of intuition urged him to check that, too. If she hid her money there, she might’ve hid notes from the guy who’d gnawed up her neck. The rest of the family still didn’t know who had done it, and Jason felt stupid for believing his sister was actually not dating since their birthday party. Anyone would think to look for Kala at Sebast’s, but since no one knew who this guy was, if she really wanted to hide out for a couple days she’d call him.
Jason opened the jewelry box, and his hands started to shake at what he found. She’d taken everything with her, even the little braided-copper ring she couldn’t wear because it turned her skin green. He lifted out the top tray, expecting to see money underneath; last he’d heard, Kala had about fifty dollars squirreled away.
The money was gone, too. Jason’s heart plummeted to the bottom of his stomach, and the chill crept up his spine. Something was wrong, something was very wrong in this room, he’d known it from the moment he stepped in…
He turned slowly, his eyes settling on the one thing that no one else would’ve noticed. For a moment, his heart stopped, and then he was scrambling for his phone, dialing Mom’s cell number. “You need to get here now,” he blurted as soon as she answered the phone, still staring at the blank patch of wall on which the most recent family portrait should have been hanging. “I think Kala ran away!”