...can any hear that rollercoaster starting up? *evil grin*
Also, the photo mentioned in this chapter was the heartbreaking work of Ms. januaried, to whom this chapter is dedicated.
Diana walked beside Clark as they slipped away from the crowd to find someplace secluded – no phone booths down here, but if there was one thing Metropolis subways had plenty of, it was odd little disused nooks and crannies. With their speed, that was space and time enough to change into uniform, and Diana still didn’t know how he managed to fit the cape under a business suit. Trade secret, Clark has answered her before, always with a smile, sometimes with a chuckle.
She doubted he would have smiled just then. They dodged the cops processing the scene – the speed of Hermes, ever useful – and explored further down the tunnels, looking for anything that might lead them to Kala. Flight would help preserve any forensic evidence, but at the moment they weren’t seeing anything to preserve. Not a trace. Diana could tell by the set of his shoulders that Clark was getting discouraged, so she tried a different train of thought.
They weren’t seeing anything that shouldn’t be there, so what weren’t they seeing that should be there? The answer came to her so quickly that she halted in mid-flight. “Clark,” she called, when he flew on ahead, not even noticing.
The sound of her voice was enough to stop him, the tall man looking over his shoulder perplexedly. “Diana?”
“There’s something quite odd here. There’s no dust,” she told him. “No litter, no grime. This tunnel has been cleaned, thoroughly and recently.” Probably right after she was taken, cleaned up to keep us from finding the scene. If they hadn’t missed the glasses…
It was impossible to miss the look in his eyes, the one that told her how obvious it should have been to both of them. If only he hadn’t been so busy worrying about his daughter, if only she hadn’t been so busy worrying about him. That wasn’t important – the only thing that was important was finding out who had been using these tunnels.
Clark had the vision that could see through all of this mess, and he used it, peering intently as he turned a slow circle in midair. “The adjacent tunnels are filthy, as expected. It’s just this one … for about another hundred yards. Then it dead-ends in solid bedrock.” He looked down then, and without another word flew further up the tunnel. There was a grating set in the floor, which Clark tossed aside as he dove down.
Diana followed closely, their powers so nearly matched that she could keep pace with him. “Luthor,” Clark growled just a few feet ahead, navigating the twisting tunnels. “He used to have a hideout down here, under Park Avenue. It has to be Luthor, the sick sonofa…”
He accelerated, heading for another grating, another layer deeper, and intuition started to warn Diana, faint alarm bells ringing somewhere in her consciousness. Flashing past what was once Luthor’s gauntlet – bullets, fire, ice, none of it could stop Clark then, nothing would stop him now, Luthor’s extravagant machines gone still and silent. Then there was a door ahead and every instinct the Amazon possessed screamed Don’t go in there!
“Lead-lined,” Clark said harshly, flying still faster, “she’s right here,” and he powered through the door with a clang of metal bursting before invulnerable fists.
Diana was right on his heels when the green glow flared from that room, conscious thought finally catching up to intuition. If they were so careful to sweep the floors and eliminate trace evidence, how could they possibly have missed the glasses? Simple answer: they didn’t miss them. The sunglasses were bait. She grabbed Clark by the ankle unceremoniously and hauled him out, straight up, knocking aside brick and metal. She had just enough presence of mind to make their exit through a subway grating instead of a sidewalk, flashing past the buildings and up into the sun. Clark twisted free of her hand and righted himself, looking at her, pale and shocked. Other than that, he hadn’t taken any serious harm, thanks to her swift intervention. “Kryptonite,” he whispered.
“A trap. For you. The sunglasses were a plant to bring you in.”
Clark almost never used profanity, and Diana found that intriguing, but he growled a few choice words before finishing, “Still, it proves Luthor’s involvement.”
“It does,” Diana was quick to agree, a small frown on her features. “And that he means to kill you.”
His frown mirrored hers as he tossed off irritably, “That’s nothing new.”
Without further comment, he turned as if to descend again, but she reached out and caught his shoulder. “Wait,” she said. “That was close – too close. Wait here a moment, and take the sun. I’ll go deal with the kryptonite and the police.”
Clark nodded, and gave her a wan smile. “I’m going to need to go back down there and explain things to Richard.” Diana looked at him, trying to place the name, and Clark clarified, “Richard White, my kids’ other dad. He was helping me search – or more likely, he was trying to keep me from doing anything rash.” A mile of empty air beneath their feet made the conversation as private as it could be, so it was safe to use names – that was one thing they were always very, very careful about.
“Someone needs to,” Diana told him, balancing the tone carefully between affectionate and stern. “Clark, you do need to be careful.”
“I will,” he promised quickly, almost too quickly, and Diana flew back down, thinking that perhaps sometimes Superman did lie, however unknowingly.
In the car on the way back from Eastlake’s, Lois didn’t look at Jason when she said seemingly out of nowhere, “Don’t say anything to your father about where we went.”
Jason turned to look over to his mother with surprise. Considering the lead they had gained from the visit with the investor, he hadn’t expected this. Jason knew that he sounded disapproving when he asked, “Why?” This didn’t sound good.
Lois’ gaze reeked of annoyance when she met his eyes. “Because I said so,” was the blunt response. Jason wasn’t normally one to argue with parental orders.
God, why does she do that? And why does she always expect me to buckle under? Her son folded his arms and stared at her belligerently. “You said no more secrets,” Jason reminded her, his blue eyes stern as he stared at his mother. “You promised a long time ago you weren’t gonna lie to us or to Dad. No way am I gonna help you break that. I love you, Mom, but no.”
“Jason, I’m not keeping a secret,” Lois explained patiently. “I’ll tell your father where the information came from, just not right now. And I’m not gonna lie, I just won’t reveal my sources. Okay?”
Jason mulled that over for a few minutes, watching Lois intently. His mom was world-class at evasion, and couching everything in journalistic metaphors was usually a bad sign. He decided to be blunt and insistent; Lois rarely had the heart to keep refusing him when he really, really wanted something. “How come you don’t want Dad to know where the information came from?” he asked, and added as an afterthought, “And what’s up with you and Mr. Eastlake?”
Lois’ knuckles whitened on the steering wheel. He could see the way she was trying to make her expression unreadable. “What do you mean, what’s up with me and Eastlake?” she asked then, eyes locked on the road with considerably intensity, probably not realizing how forced her words sounded.
“Just then you acted like you hate his guts, when you were being all nice last time I was at the newspaper,” Jason pointed out. “And he’s all tongue-tied and stupid around you. Does he have a crush on you, Mom?” That possibility made him feel a little sick; many men flirted with his mother, but only Dad and Richard could do so without making Jason want to chase them off.
Lois sighed heavily before answering, running her free hand through her hair. “Jason… I guess you could say he does, yeah. And your father’s being thick-headed about it.”
Jason considered that, and didn’t like any part of it. The investor was young, good-looking, and wealthy, the kind of guy that married women got in trouble over – at least on TV and in books. And given the way things were going in the Lane-Kent house lately… Jason finally asked in a very small voice, “Is that why you and Dad were fighting the other night?”
That did it, his mother whipping her gaze over to him to make her exasperation clear. “We are not discussing this,” Lois snapped, although he knew she was holding back just a bit. “Jason, honey, I love you, but I’m not getting relationship advice from a sixteen-year-old. Suffice it to say, I have not, I am not, and I will not cheat on your father, and especially not with someone like Eastlake. God, he’s young enough to be my son, if I’d started as early as your aunt Lucy.”
Jason laughed with relief. That had been exactly the reaction he had been hoping for. “Thanks, Mom,” he said. Her tone and attitude made it very, very clear that she wasn’t romantically entangled with Eastlake. Lois managed to chuckle along with him, and the oppressive atmosphere in the car lifted for a moment.
They’d barely driven a mile when it occurred to Jason that his parents still had relationship problems, and now he didn’t know the cause of them. Even worse, they were now fairly sure that Lex Luthor was somehow involved in Kala’s disappearance. That meant that all of their efforts so far had probably been wasted.
The depressing thought weighed on Jason all the way home, only to find that no one was home. Richard had left a hastily-scrawled note saying that he and Clark were checking up on a possible lead. Maggie had amended that with a comment that she was going to meet with the missing-persons squad and would call later. And below her precise handwriting was Sebast’s angular script, which simply read, “Your aunt says there’s nothing else we can do today, so we’re out. Call me if you need me, mano.” Elise had added, “See you tomorrow,” and Giselle had written at the very bottom of the piece of paper, “Love you.”
Jason was at a loss; he couldn’t openly talk about Luthor with his girlfriend or any of his friends. Sooner or later they would ask why the madman was so obsessed with this family, and he didn’t feel up to all the roundabout explanations that would keep them from finding out the truth. And Lois was standing in the living room but clearly not seeing the apartment at all, lost in her own mind as she tried to plan their next move.
What he really wanted, right at that moment, was some company and comfort from someone who wouldn’t demand answers he couldn’t give. Fortunately, the Lane-Kents had a dog, and she was currently sniffing Jason’s pant leg. He reached down to pick up the beagle, feeling a little guilty that she’d been neglected since New Year’s. Bagel licked his face and wagged her tail worriedly, sure signs that she’d picked up on the tension among her humans and didn’t like it at all.
“I’m gonna take Bagel for a walk,” Jason said, and Lois nodded distractedly.
Kala had been half-dozing. She was exhausted by the fight, and whatever drugs they’d given her had left her with a lingering headache. She didn’t want to actually fall asleep, as that would leave her helpless, but she also didn’t want to leave this room. The guys she’d hurt were out there, and so far no had intruded on the room Luthor said was hers. It was a waking nightmare, and in that state she could do more than huddle on the bed and drowse, waiting like a trapped animal for whatever came next.
A faint chime brought her immediately to full consciousness, and she sat up on the bed, ready to defend herself. The door to her room slid open – so other people could come in here at will. That didn’t surprise her, but one of her few remaining hopes shattered the moment her visitor walked in.
He was a tall, broad-shouldered man who clearly spent some time in the gym. Kala readied herself for a fight, cursing the quirk of inheritance that had given Jason strength and a fuller measure of invulnerability. But the strange man only regarded her for a moment, and then said in a level voice, “Would you like to get that arm looked at, Miss Lane-Kent?”
“Sure,” Kala replied, not moving an inch. “Open a door and I’ll make my own way to the nearest hospital.”
He chuckled at that. “Sorry, kid, I’ve got orders. I’m…”
Kala cut him off. “Are they anything like the orders given to the guys who brought me in? Because the next person who gropes me is gonna get kicked so hard they won’t even be able to scream in pain until tomorrow.” She’d spent some time devising that threat, after rejecting a comment about using her heat-vision to perform a couple of impromptu vasectomies. The less they knew about her powers, the better.
“Those guys are trash,” the man said dismissively. “Just here to keep the scientists and the general from starting trouble. Some of the folks here have sort of artistic temperaments, you know? They need a two-hundred-fifty pound ex-con with barbed wire tattooed on both wrists to remind them that protesting the working hours and the menu is not a smart idea.”
“Just how many people are down here?” Kala asked.
“Enough,” he replied. “Listen, I don’t see any reason why you and I have to have any problems. Mr. Luthor wants me to take you down to the infirmary and get your arm checked out. You probably want that seen to, don’t you? I’m also supposed to tell you why you’re here and what Mr. Luthor wants from you. I’m sure those are things you want to know. So you don’t have to fight with me, okay?”
“Okay,” Kala said tentatively, “for now.”
“Good enough,” he said. “My name’s Robert Schecter. C’mon, let’s get you to the infirmary.”
Kala rose with as much grace as she could muster, considering the throbbing pain centered in her wrist, and followed him out of the room. Three of the tough guys were standing at the junction of two corridors, laughing and talking, but they went quiet when they saw Kala.
Schecter just kept walking. “Move along, boys,” he said casually, and they did.
That made Kala look at him speculatively. “So what’s your job around here?” she asked.
“Accountant,” he replied, and chuckled at her disbelieving snort. “I’m a CPA.”
“I didn’t think Luthor’s goons would respect a CPA,” Kala said. “And I didn’t think I’d find one working for him.”
“We all have to make a living,” Schecter told her. “And some of us have to make restitution, too. I did five years for embezzlement. The way I figure it, the company I worked for was screwing me over with mandatory unpaid overtime and cheap benefits and piddly ten-cent raises. So I got even – I made sure I got the money I was worth.” He sighed, and added with an ironic shrug, “Judge didn’t see it that way, though.”
“So you figured you’d fall in with an even bigger crook?” Kala was still uneasy enough to be snappish, and she wanted to find out if Schecter had a nasty temper lurking under his amiable exterior.
“Couldn’t get a straight job,” he replied. “Unless I wanted to work for McDonald’s. Luthor hired me to do the payroll, and his bullyboys respect the guy who cuts the checks. It helps that I spent time in stir, and got the chance to work out.”
“So how come Luthor sent his pet accountant to talk to me?” Kala asked. They were walking down a series of indifferently-lit gray concrete corridors, but Schecter seemed to know his way in spite of the lack of landmarks. Abruptly, they turned onto a corridor with finished white walls, tiled floors, and bright fluorescent lights overhead.
“I don’t know,” Schecter said. “Maybe he figured I was the one least likely to tick you off, but not someone you could easily overpower? Doesn’t matter, anyway. No one questions Luthor more than once.”
Kala mused on that as he led her into a glassed-in room where a group of men and women in lab coats were examining a huge crystal structure that rose out of the ground. Schecter introduced the medical team, but Kala wasn’t paying attention. She had recognized the Fortress’ diagnostic assembly even in these unfamiliar surroundings, and her shock kept her quiet as the doctors guided her injured arm beneath the central crystal.
How the hell did it get here? she thought. It’s not like Luthor could pick it up and move it. The memory crystals, sure, they’re portable, but this thing…
Meanwhile, the smaller crystals began to glow, their light increasing in a steady, quickening pulse. The main crystal, which was as big around as a moderately-sized tree, gradually brightened in time with the pulsing light around it until it blazed a brilliant golden-white. Kala closed her eyes and still felt it hammer at her eyelids, her vision going red with each pulse.
The crystals made a noise when they moved, an eerie sliding-squeaking-chiming sound that Kala had always hated. Watching the Fortress’ control panel slide upward from the ground always gave her the creeps, and knowing that the massive diagnostic crystal was sliding down toward her suddenly-fragile wrist made her want to yank it away. But she’d dealt with an identical copy of this particular machine before, having had regular checkups at the Fortress ever since she was six.
The huge crystal shone with a light so intense it seemed as though it must burn. But as Kala knew, this was a completely non-invasive imaging and diagnostic tool, one which left no trace on the human or Kryptonian bodies it examined. Where the crystal hovered just above her skin, she felt nothing – no heat, no chill, no tingling. That was far creepier than getting an x-ray or an MRI.
The light dimmed, and a disembodied voice spoke in Kryptonese. Kala had the translation before the scientists around her did; her ulna had a hairline fracture, with plenty of associated bruising. “Let’s get a cast brace on that,” one of the doctors said.
Schecter had been sitting in a chair nearby, and while the medical team found an appropriate brace and fitted it to the teenager’s arm, he studied Kala. She stared back at him, wondering what was going through his mind. “So what now?” she said, after pocketing the pain pills one of the doctors offered her.
“You’ve seen the diagnostic crystal before,” Schecter said, standing up and beckoning Kala to follow him out. “So you have been in the Fortress of Solitude.”
Kala kept her mouth shut as she walked beside him, her eyes going cold and narrow. Aw, shit.
It was with very mixed emotions that Lois found herself in the doorway to Kala’s room. Where the dark and whimsical décor of her child’s room usually exasperated her to the point of evading it, now it just hurt to look at. No one other than Jason had had the heart to go in since Kala had disappeared. Although she was loathe to admit it, Lois knew that the main reason she hadn’t was that she’d have to cope with not hearing, “Attack alligators on premises. Enter at your own risk,” the moment she opened the door a crack. Never in her life did she think that the lack of it would make her heart ache the way it did.
Making herself walk across the purple carpet (Mystic Echo, Kala had announced with utter delight when she and her father had returned from the carpet showroom that day. Lois herself had snorted in amusement), she walked over to Kala’s still-unmade bed. Her earlier discussion with Jason had skewed her thoughts to the point that she couldn’t get his admonition out of his mind. It didn’t help matters to have had her suspicions confirmed by that picture in Eastlake Senior’s scrapbook. Actually, a small part of her had hoped against hope that she had been jumping to conclusions.
Luthor. The name made her shiver, even in her own mind. Could it really be him after all these years of peace, or was she just clutching at shadows, trying to find a reason why this could be anyone’s fault but hers?
It was tempting to think that maybe, just maybe, her famous journalistic intuition was wrong. The nagging doubt tugged at Lois as she looked around her daughter’s room, seeing absolutely no signs of a struggle. Kala had left on her own, not coerced in the slightest. Maybe…
Without really thinking about it, Lois started to search more carefully and thoroughly, looking for any clue that might refute the assumption she dreaded. After all, Kala could be perfectly safe somewhere, just throwing one of her epic tantrums. Luthor might not be involved at all. Kala didn’t have to have been kidnapped, she could’ve just run away, she could’ve planned and prepared better than anyone in her life could imagine. And if she had, there might be some clue to her destination still in the room.
Lois had a sudden, vivid memory of Kala at six years old, right after Lois and Clark had gotten married. Clark had bought Lois an expensive leather-bound journal, one of the ones that seemed too good for normal everyday musings; the rich cream-colored paper cried out for pithy observations on the state of the world, or deeply thoughtful poems rich in imagery. Lois had kept it on her desk, occasionally riffling the pages just to enjoy the weight of the paper and the faint scent of the leather cover, but she hadn’t been able to think of anything worth writing in it. Not as a first entry, anyway.
Kala solved that for her. One day, when she opened the journal, she found her daughter’s sprawling script on the second page. “Mommy, Im not relly mad when you an Daddy Clark kiss,” it read. “Im kinda glad. Other kids parents dont kiss a lot and call each other Dear and Hunny, and sum of them get devorsed. Than everyboddy cries. You an Daddy Clark can kiss all you want if it meens yu will allways be togethur.” Lois had laughed, but she’d also been touched by the sentiment, and Kala hadn’t been scolded for writing in the journal. She just wanted to be like her mom…
…like the way she used to follow Lois around, watching her do her makeup and get dressed and do her hair. Everything Mommy did, Kala wanted to do, too, and it took some persuading to keep the little girl from trying to use Lois’ eyeliner. When had it all gone sour?
Lois forced herself away from that thought, and back to what was important: the journal. Kala had gotten one just like it when she turned fourteen, and she’d treasured it, going to extreme lengths to keep it hidden. But Lois was a Pulitzer-prize-winning investigative reporter, and if that diary was in this room, she would find it.
Pushing aside the nagging notion that this was exactly the kind of thing Kala would have expected of her was damn difficult when she was riffling through the girl’s drawers. First, her dresser drawers, finding several pilfered slips and such belonging to her amongst Kala’s own, but not the journal. The results were the same on searching all three of the vanity drawers (three of her darker MAC lipsticks and a pink-gold Lustreglass – leave it to her kid to steal the good stuff). Nothing in the closet, top to bottom, except two baskets of clothes that Kala never seemed to have put away. And about four outfits worth of her mother’s own high-end clothes for work, some of which she had thought she had given away at some point without realizing it, which would ordinarily have annoyed Lois to no end.
As it was, it just worried her more. Nerves fraying all the worse, Lois redoubled her efforts, even going as far as pulling out the step-ladder from the study to check the top of Kala’s closet and some of her higher shelves. She also checked the area around the low bookcase where Captain Bonnie’s cage usually rested. The ferret was currently residing in Jason’s room, the boy having taken her out with him when he’d woken up in his twin’s room. Just seeing the shape of the cage’s outline in the dust made Lois’ heart ache. More proof of just how wrong the world was at the moment.
No matter where she looked in the room, which was still in its usual teenage-messy state despite the often-heard promises that she could keep her room just as barracks-neat as Jason’s, there was nothing to indicate where she had planned to go and no sign of the journal. The piles of purple peasant skirts, dark jeans, and delicate tops on the floor gave up none of their secrets; likewise, Kala’s stuffed meerkat stared mutely at her from its customary place on the canopy bed. Considering the way their relationship had been of late, she should have known that she wouldn’t find anything in here. It was almost like her child had wanted to make it impossible for her to be found, if only by Lois herself.
Fighting the feeling of utter helplessness, Lois threw herself back on the bed, jostling the stuffed doll out of its place. The silence of the room was somber while she lay there staring up into the ivory lace of the canopy, wracking her brain for answers, any answers. She hated this lost feeling, hated waiting, hated wondering. Hated seeing the fear and pain that haunted Kal-El’s and Jason’s eyes. But, most of all, she hated feeling broken inside in an irreparable way. All of the losses she’d had over the year, not knowing where her daughter was dwarfed even her mother’s death.
Tightening her jaw, Lois fought the sob attempting to bubble up, closing her eyes on the tears she felt welling. No. No, not yet. She was not going to fall apart until they had a lead on her whereabouts. It wasn’t in the cards. Kala needed her help, whether she knew she needed it or not. She made herself sit up, shoving the thought away as hard as she could. In doing so, she noticed something unusual about the bedsheets.
The bed was still unmade from Jason sleeping there the night before, the boy having gotten up so early that he probably hadn’t even thought of it. That Kala’s twin had passed a restless night was clear in the fact that the sheets were completely askew, the comforter tossed aside. Even the fitted sheet’s elastic had been pulled off the side enough to show the down mattress pad Kala had gotten as a birthday present and the fancy ‘bed belt’ that they had purchased to keep the thing in place. The belt that encircled the width of the bed frame…
Lois’ eyes widened then, diving for the floor. The instant her knees hit the carpet, she was leaned down and searching the underside of the bed by touch. It has to be there, it has to be there… All she could feel was the frame and the fabric of the belt. Growling in frustration, she leaned her arm further. Come on. I know it has to be under here. Come on… There! She nearly whooped in elation when her fingertips slipped around the smooth, cool surface of the journal’s cover.
Tugging it free from its hiding place, Lois hesitated. Normally she’d be thrilled by the discovery of this sort of information. God knows she wouldn’t have shied away from this kind of thing when it involved crooked senators or the like. How could opening this journal make her feel vaguely ill?
Because it belonged to her own child and she had no idea what she’d find when she looked into it. And the thought just didn’t sit right with her. Kala’s most secret thoughts were in those pages, never guessing that another pair of eyes would see it. Reading it would be a profound invasion of her privacy … and might reveal a few hurtful words that Lois would have a hard time forgetting. Maybe more than a few…
But what was that compared to maybe gleaning some answers to where Kala could be? The reporter stared down at the little journal in her hands with more than a little trepidation.