Well, this is it. This is the chapter you've been waiting for. It's all go from here. The adventure starts now. :D
“I’ll be in touch. Keep up the surveillance, and contact me immediately if our concerns are jeopardized.” Mercy Graves’ eyes were calm, the blonde braid down her back neat, her voice steady. Her hands went on with their competent work, loading bullets into a spare magazine.
Hope drew the edge of a knife along the sharpening block, and studied it in the harsh fluorescent light. “I suppose I’m handling our agent, too?” she said in an idle tone.
“Of course.” Mercy glanced at the other woman. Hope was much like her, the only differences between them superficial: skin tone, hairstyle, and facial features. Beneath the surface, the similarities began: muscle tone, the grace and poise of a trained martial artist, and a certain ruthlessness of character at the core. Mercy privately thought that Hope was a little softer than herself, occasionally disinclined to do the job at hand for some silly ethical reason. Those lapses were very few, of course, or Hope wouldn’t be working for Luthor.
The blonde, however, had no such concerns. She had risen from just another chemist at Luthor’s lab to become his right hand – she ran L-Tech, supervised the scientists at the research facility, headed security for the corporation and the lab, and was Lex’s personal bodyguard. Mercy couldn’t have gotten to this position if she allowed moral concerns to hold her back. “I should be back in two or three days. Keep a close watch on our agent, too.”
Hope started to look interested. “Getting fractious?”
“You could say that.” With that, Mercy left without further word. Hope knew her job, and would do it without supervision, including all the contingencies. Mercy could concentrate on getting back to Luthor with her prize.
When Kal-El’s eyes opened the next morning, the memory of the previous day’s events returned to him immediately, reminding him of what he was now faced with. A quick check of the house with his super-hearing revealed the surprise that both his wife and son were already awake, and the non-surprise that Kala hadn’t come home on her own. Guarding himself against the sinking feeling he already felt, Kal-El dragged himself out of bed and through the routine of getting showered and dressed. In the uniform this time – he had to look for his child.
He had no more than stepped into the living room when Lois turned toward him with the phone in her hand, her face alive with nervous energy. “Mags, I’ll call you right back,” she said, cutting short her conversation. “Superman just checked in.” He could feel her hazel eyes running over him worriedly. As she put the phone back in its cradle, Kal-El noticed the cigarette in her other hand. It was only to be expected – nicotine was Lois’ chosen vice in stressful situations. The way she had been fidgeting with the locket so much yesterday, he’d half expected the chain to break; smoking would be the next step. At least she’d opened the French doors to let the smoke blow out, in spite of the snow on the balcony.
He saw a flicker of dismay go over her features before she started toward him, the slight shadows under her eyes not yet hidden by any cosmetics. It was clear that Lois was still exhausted, but the rest had brought back some of her usual fire. “You, get your ass up there,” she said, her voice all too serious when she jabbed a finger toward the ceiling. “I don’t want to see you for at least an hour. Got it?”
Kal-El blinked, on the verge of being offended – didn’t she realize that he’d run himself ragged? In the next second, Lois must have seen the look on his face. She came up to him and put her arms around him, holding the cigarette away from him awkwardly. She stayed silent for a moment before murmuring softly against his shoulder. “Go on, hero. Soak up some rays. I doubt anything will change while you power up. And I’ve known you long enough to know you’ll drop over if you don’t.”
After everything that had happened, she was still worrying about his condition. New Year’s Eve seemed like a bad dream, the harsh words they’d spoken to each other impossible in the light of her concern and his gratitude. Kal-El hugged her tightly, whispering his love for her, and then flew.
High above Metropolis, the thin atmosphere allowed more of the sun’s rays to soak into him. Kal-El nearly wept with relief, turning his face up toward the golden orb above. Oh, how he’d needed this. Kal-El began to feel whole again, the tension easing from his muscles even as the fatigue faded away. He hovered there for almost the full hour before his sense of duty began to nag him.
Zooming back down to the city, Kal-El turned his hearing toward his own apartment. Sebast had come by, and Inspector Sawyer was there as well. Judging that Lois and Jason were safe and preoccupied, he resumed his search. This time, he flew slowly along the city’s streets, his eyes almost closed, listening intently for Kala’s heartbeat or voice.
Martha made the second pot of coffee of the day, looking worriedly out across the fields. She wasn’t sure Kala would come here – it would be very hard for the girl to travel this far alone and undetected, even with her father’s super-speed, but it wasn’t impossible. Martha remembered when Clark was that age; he’d been a blessedly biddable child, but in his teenage years he’d had some moody spells. Sometimes he’d go out and just run, as if his adolescent anxieties might lose track of him if he were fast enough.
She could hope that was what Kala was doing, hope that the girl would show up somewhere after a night alone. But Martha had the sinking feeling that she should direct her prayers toward her granddaughter’s safety, first and foremost.
“She’ll come home,” Ben said quietly. Martha startled a little; she hadn’t heard him enter the room. As always, he knew her mind. He stood behind her chair, and rubbed her shoulders softly. Years of work and the onset of arthritis had callused and gnarled his hands, but his touch was warm and comforting. “She’s a good kid, Martha. She’ll come home soon enough.”
Martha sighed, leaning back. Having to hide the truth from Ben was so bitter – if only she could have told him all the reasons she feared for Kala, but that would mean explaining Clark, and too many people already knew his secret. Luthor alone was one too many. Richard and Lana could be trusted, of course, but Martha had always worried. If they could figure it out, then who else had guessed? Who else knew her boy wasn’t from this earth? And who else knew his children had a secret heritage, one that would make them very interesting to the wrong kind of people?
Ben would never do anything to harm Clark or his family … but Ben had two sons, and he might feel he could trust them with the secret. And they might trust their wives. And eventually, someone somewhere would go to the newspapers or the government, and Clark would never be safe again. No, it was better not to tell anyone else.
Even if it meant that Martha could share her life and her love with Ben, but not her pain, not her deepest fears. She caught his hand and kissed his knuckles softly. “I’m sure you’re right,” she whispered.
“He did what?” Dinah said, leaning forward in her chair. This wasn’t a scheduled meeting, just a gathering of the JLA members who happened to be in the Watchtower at the time, with the understanding that they’d spread the news to the rest of the team. Even knowing that, Dinah hadn’t been prepared for what she’d just heard.
“Told Oracle to take him off the roster,” J’onn replied. “And refused our assistance in finding his daughter.”
“Clark’s lost it,” Wally muttered, looking at the others in honest surprise. “Why wouldn’t he want our help?”
It was Bruce who shook his head. “Doesn’t matter. We’re going to do what we can to help him anyway.”
They all gave him a cautious look. None of them had ever heard Superman give any member of the team the brush-off, and very few people were short-tempered with Oracle. If Clark was in that bad of a mood – understandable given the circumstances, of course – only Bruce would blatantly ignore his request. It was Dinah who spoke up at last. “Okay. I’m with you on that, Bruce. If anyone deserves our help in personal matters, it’s Clark. But why are you so vehement?”
“Because it’s probably not a personal matter anymore. She’s been gone since yesterday morning – I made a few calls – and he can’t find her. Someone had to have kidnapped her.”
Diana wore a thoughtful look. “But Kala is Superman’s daughter. Who could have taken her against her will?”
The look that the cowled man gave her suggested that she should have known the answer. “She’s not a full-blooded Kryptonian,” Bruce reminded them all. “She’s half human, too. Lois gave her partial immunity to kryptonite, but Kala doesn’t have all of Clark’s invulnerability or his strength.”
“So she could’ve been taken,” Dinah murmured, nodding.
Again, Bruce spoke up. “Any one of us, even Clark, could be captured, if someone put enough thought into it.” He would know; he planned for all contingencies, including the unlikely event of the JLA members needing to be taken down. “Kala’s just a kid. If she were running around on her own, we’d know about it by now. She’s got some of her father’s powers and all of her mother’s instinct for getting in trouble.”
“You have a point.” The Amazon was starting to sound as concerned as Bruce seemed to feel. “Even if Kala hasn’t been kidnapped, we still must try to find her. With Clark’s powers, even at half strength, she could easily get into the kind of trouble only we can get her out of.”
Wally winced at that. “And if she does, there goes Clark’s identity.”
“His identity, and Lois’ career,” Bruce added. “The press doesn’t look kindly on Pulitzer-prize-winning reporters who have their story’s children.”
“All right, whether Clark wants us to or not, I guess we’re in the search,” Dinah said.
At that, Wally grinned widely at the darkly-dressed man. “In that case, you get to tell him, Bruce.”
Jamie didn’t like the idea of doing unofficial, undercover work for her mom. It somehow sounded immoral, if not illegal, and her classes had taught her a lot about ethics and responsibilities. Had Maggie asked for anything else, Jamie would have refused and claimed a conflict of interest.
But this was about Kala, and the young law student learned that abstract notions of justice and fairness can fade quickly when a friend was in danger. Jamie was several years older than Kala, but her respect and fondness for the younger girl knew no boundaries. Kala, after all, was the main reason why Jamie still had a relationship with her own mother.
When Jamie had been about thirteen, and first learned why her parents divorced and that Mom’s ‘roommate’ Tobie was actually something much more personal, she’d reacted badly. Her home town was not the most progressive in the world, and she’d inherited her father’s prejudices. Little did she realize that his perspective on the subject was deeply biased by personal pain, and young Jamie had been very, very angry with her mother without understanding her own feelings or her father’s.
Maggie had borne that with her typical quiet poise, but Tobie had been wounded. The reporter had always gotten along with Jamie, right up until the moment the girl realized she was Mom’s girlfriend. Then it was war, Jamie accusing Tobie of stealing her mother from her father, and calling her a few choice names in the bargain. She’d refused to speak to Tobie from then on, and the reporter had been more than willing to keep it that way. Maggie wouldn’t accept the silent treatment from her own child, but it had to have hurt her too.
Jamie remembered those times with a sting of shame. She’d behaved like a little kid, scared of something she didn’t understand, and she’d parroted the narrow-minded attitudes of people she’d grown up with. She had never even given her own mother a chance to explain her actions. Kala was the one who’d set her straight.
The two girls had met before, but since Jamie’s visits to Metropolis were short and infrequent, they hadn’t gotten close. During that awful year when Jamie claimed to hate her mom, Maggie had reluctantly brought her to the annual Independence Day barbecue at the Troupe house. Jamie had sulked, refusing to talk to the other kids (even though Sam was almost her own age), sitting by herself and affecting such a put-upon air that everyone left her alone.
Everyone except Kala. The bossy little brat had gone straight over to her and asked, with a seven-year-old’s directness, what was wrong with her. Jamie had sneered to the question. “I don’t wanna be seen in public with my mom and her lezzie girlfriend.”
She’d expected to have to explain that term to Kala, but the little girl had already heard it. Kala had wrinkled her nose and the disdain in her voice had surprised Jamie, “Mommy says people who call names just ‘cause someone’s different are fraidy-cats. Especially people who call those kinds of names. She says the whole point of life is learning stuff, and how can you learn if you’re so scared you gotta make up nasty names for people?”
“I’m not scared,” Jamie had been quick to retort. “It’s dirty and nasty and wrong.”
“Says my dad.”
“Oh yeah?” Where that statement was usually enough to put an abrupt end to most arguments, this little girl kept pushing, her head titled to the side as she looked Jamie straight in the eye. “Well, my mommy and my daddy say that it’s not wrong to love somebody, even if they’re a different color or maybe another girl. Plus my daddy’s better.”
The rebuttal threw a curve ball for Jamie. Most little kids would have either wandered off, bored by her stubbornness or started crying because she was being mean. But Kala showed no signs of either. “My dad read it in the Bible,” Jamie had said then, sure of her moral superiority.
Kala had just sniffed. “Aunt Lucy read me a speech that said people are all a little bit different, an’ we should all get along ‘cause we’re more the same than we are different. And being different is okay anyway, because there’s lots of different kinds of everything on the planet, lots of fish, lots of trees, lots of birds, so obviously we’re not all supposed to be the same, either. Besides, didja know your mom knows Superman? He doesn’t call her names, an’ he knows Aunt Tobie, too.”
Jamie vividly remembered how her jaw had dropped. Confident she’d won the argument, Kala had gotten up and strolled away, and the older girl had been so stunned that she was actually polite for the rest of the day. She’d seen that everyone at the barbecue treated her mother and Tobie just like they treated everyone else. No one made faces when they sat next to each other, Maggie’s arm casually around Tobie’s shoulders, and even the other kids seemed to take it for granted that the two were a couple just like any other set of parents they knew.
It had been an eye-opener, but not enough to convince a thirteen-year-old that everything she believed was wrong. Jamie had been old enough to look up the articles and see the proof of Kala’s claims for herself; her mother had indeed worked with Superman on several occasions, and every police officer Jamie knew respected him. That was finally enough to change her behavior; she’d started speaking civilly to both women again, and while Tobie had been very cautious of her for a while, things had ultimately gone back to the way they’d been when Jamie was ignorant of their relationship.
It had been another two years before Jamie had summoned up the guts to confront her mother about her choices, and she’d been surprised to hear Maggie say that she still cared about Jim, and still regretted hurting him. Ultimately, though, she’d felt she had to choose between hurting him and being who she really was, or hurting both of them by living a lie. Jamie had thought about the conversation for a long time before getting her father’s version of events, but in spite of the fact that he had never forgiven Maggie, even he had to admit that they weren’t always happy in the years before she left. “The best thing in our marriage was you,” Jim had told his daughter, echoing Maggie’s sentiment.
Though even now, twenty-two and in law school, Jamie was still uncomfortable with the tension between her parents and the outright loathing between Tobie and Jim, she had to admit that if it hadn’t been for Kala, she might’ve stopped coming to visit her mom after that summer. And that would have been a terrible loss; the older Jamie got, the more she realized how much she and Maggie had in common. Not that, of course – Jamie had been relieved by her own obvious attraction to men – but a lot of other things, little personality quirks that she shared with her mom.
Even if her friendship with Kala hadn’t grown over the years, Jamie would’ve felt compelled to help in the search for her just because of that long-ago conversation. She had been out yesterday, showing a photo of Kala to transit cops at subway stations. Now they had a lead, and it was up to her to find the guy who might know where Kala was.
His name was Nick Powell, and he was in Jamie’s class. The thought of someone her own age dating a high school kid like Kala sent a chill down her spine, though some lawyerly voice in the back of her brain reminded her of all the times she’d remarked that Kala often acted more like a twenty-something than a teenager. Jamie dismissed that thought, and went stalking the creep.
She had a photo of him that Maggie had given her. They’d found several young men with similar names, but this one fit the sparse descriptions given by Elise and Brandon from Fuel, and he went to the university he’d told Kala he attended. He was almost certainly the guy who’d marked Kala’s neck, and for that Jamie wanted to find him and kick him where it would hurt.
But doing that would tip him off, and she was only supposed to make sure he didn’t go back to his dorm. The moment Maggie had learned he had a private room, she wanted to toss it – but that would be an illegal search. Instead, she’d told Lois which room was his, knowing the reporter would get out her lock picks as soon as Maggie turned her back.
And while she did that, Jamie would keep an eye on Pervert Powell, and text them if he was headed back to the dorm. They had called his room and received no answer, so it was likely that he wasn’t in, but not certain. Classes didn’t start again for a week, so he could be anywhere. Jamie tried all the obvious places, but Nick wasn’t in any of the campus eateries, or the gym, or anywhere else she could think of.
Lois heaved the mattress up, feeling along underneath it for any rips that might indicate a hidden stash. Clark sat in Nick’s desk chair in the center of the room, head lowered like a bull about to charge, and just glared at his surroundings. For all of their hoping to have this over with, Kala hadn’t been there; they’d known that from the moment they arrived, but that didn’t mean there weren’t clues to be found while Jamie provided a distraction. It seemed like the moment Clark realized they weren’t going to find Kala right away, though, he’d sunk into a foul mood.
Meanwhile, his wife was currently struggling with the unexpected weight of the mattress. The mattress which was twice her size and trying to fall on her. After a moment, she turned to glare at him with clear annoyance. “A little help would be appreciated, you know. That is, if you’re not too busy being an evil brooding lump of fatherhood there.”
“There’s nothing in the mattress,” Clark responded in a low voice, not moving. “The box spring, either.”
At that, Lois let go of the mattress in disgust and let gravity do its work, turning around to cross her arms over her chest, her frustration clear. “You wanted in on this,” she reminded him, stepping around the bed to face him. “You wanted to confront the guy. What gives?”
“I thought he might tell us where Kala is.” He leaned forward and caught the edge of the mattress with his fingertips, flipping it completely upside down with a single careless gesture. It crashed back onto the box spring, startling Lois. Clark looked at it meditatively, and then added in a carefully controlled tone, “Now that I’m here, I’m worried I won’t be able to control my temper.”
Lois felt gooseflesh erupt along her arms and spine. For precisely that reason, she’d left Jason at home in the care of Sebast, with Elise and Giselle scheduled to arrive soon after. Faced with the college student who’d been fooling around with Kala, especially considering the rumors Sebast had mentioned, Lois didn’t trust her son not to suddenly reveal super-powers by punching Nick through a wall. She just hadn’t realized that Clark would have the same problem. He dealt with murderers and rapists without harming a single hair on their heads; he had even set Luthor down carefully when he returned the megalomaniac to prison.
This was his daughter, though, and Lois was chilled to realize she should have left him home, too. She and Maggie could handle a college kid; if he needed to be threatened, Maggie had the patented cop snarl and Lois knew a dozen ways to hurt a man that left no marks. But like it or not, Clark was here, and Lois just had to make sure he didn’t blow his cover. Not only for the sake of his identity; if Jason lost it and socked the guy, Nick would wind up in the hospital. If Clark did that, they’d recover Nick’s body from somewhere in the Pacific Ocean … or worse, one angry look would vaporize the college student right where he stood.
She had no idea how much time they had before the boy came home, but Lois knew she’d have to redirect his attention if she wanted this to work. “Clark, honey, come on,” she whispered, standing next to him and hugging him briefly against her side. “He didn’t hurt her; if he had, we both know she would’ve kicked his ass halfway to Canada. Here, help me check his desk…”