In spite of the earlier shakeup, Maggie had managed to get the group back on topic, neatly distracting them from their shock and dismay. “As I was saying, everyone in this room is at risk. I’d like to minimize Luthor’s opportunities as much as possible.” While she talked about security and being aware of one’s surroundings, Perry caught Kay’s eye. The brunette sidled over to him, Laurel flanking her.
Both young women looked up at Perry intently, and he read a challenge in their eyes. They were of the generation that had little personal experience with a glass ceiling. The trail to equality in the workplace had been blazed ahead of them, and at the Daily Planet, it was not only blazed but paved, with handrails at the steep bits – they only had to look at the assistant editor’s office to know it. Work your ass off if you want to get ahead, that was how Perry had run things for the past thirty years, and the same rule had applied to everyone in the office, regardless of race, sex, religion, or anything else. Perry had always helped out people who were determined to get ahead, though help often arrived in the form of challenges to overcome.
He sized them up now, already knowing what was on their minds before either ever spoke. The same situation was haunting them all, though they’d kept it close to their vests in light of what had happened with Kala. Laurel was the first to speak, muttering under her breath. “Have you told Lois about what we found?”
Perry had considered it on coming into the apartment, but not after witnessing the scene between Clark and Lois. He’d known the kids for years, had watched them grow into the people they were now, and it pained him to see that the divide he had suspected truly was a reality. Now wasn’t the time. Besides, this wasn’t the first time he’d fought this kind of battle and surely wouldn’t be the last. “Haven’t had a chance. And I’m not gonna tell her, either. She’s got too much on her mind already without worrying about this.”
Both women exchanged a look. His assistant’s assistant wasn’t so good at hiding the level at which she was perturbed, but Kay only nodded at him slowly. Her gray eyes were confident and Perry was fairly sure that the two of them were on the same level. The girl had been with Lana for a long time; she likely felt the need to protect his niece-in-law as much as he wanted to shield both Clark and Lois at a time like this. “Perry’s right, Laurel. They have enough on their plate. We can handle it.”
The younger woman frowned a little; Ron and Lucy were sitting not so far away and it clearly made her nervous to try to keep from being overheard. Her voice was little more than a whisper when she spoke. “The stock price spiked again today. Up another three points.”
Perry didn’t even bat an eyelash; if anything, the older man looked more determined. “I don’t know what someone thinks they’re up to; I’ve got my broker holding our shares no matter how high it goes.”
“Me, too,” Kay chimed in. “We’ve actually bought more shares – you know Lana’s got the company’s best interests in mind. Whatever they’re trying to do, it’s not going to happen.”
Perry’s eyes were distant, so Laurel said in a low voice, “What could be causing a run on DP stock?”
“Luthor,” the editor in chief told her without pretense. “This is something to do with Luthor, you mark my words. He’s trying to do this to rattle Lois’ cage just a little harder. We all just heard that call. It shouldn’t be a surprise that he’d try something like this, trying to throw more at her than she can cope with. I’m not going to let the bastard do it. Whatever he’s planning, it’s not going to work. If he tries to take the paper, we’ll give him a fight he’ll never forget.” And from the look on Perry White’s face, neither woman doubted he’d do exactly as he said.
When there was nothing more to say, none of the four trusting themselves to discuss things any further at the moment, Lana and Richard started for the door. Not even glancing in Lois’ direction, Clark turned to follow them. As the others headed out to face the music, she hung back – it wasn’t enough to get yelled at by Kal-El and lectured by Lana, Lois also had to see all of her friends’ expressions now that they knew the truth as well. As brave as she could be, the crushing feeling of absolute failure battered at her foundations. It was one thing to lose face in front of her husband, or even to Lana and Richard as well, but to be caught out like this and have no way to explain yourself other than to cry “I had to!” ate at her. That she was only human meant nothing in that moment. They expected more of her and she expected more of herself. It was humbling to realize that she had failed on both fronts.
Just as she was about to step out of the hallway, her phone rang. The number was blocked, and the hair on the back of her neck stood up at the possibility that Luthor might have her in mind next. She almost didn’t answer it … but honestly, how much worse could things get at this point? Lois stepped back into the master bedroom and flipped open the phone.
Steeling herself against the insidious voice she knew would be on the other end of the line, she answered with a brusque, “Yes?”
Silence hummed on the open line for a moment, and then a woman’s voice spoke up, sounding hushed and hesitant. “Lois Lane?”
Lois scowled; why did that voice make her think of camera phones and an old blue Buick and helicopter blades? She couldn’t quite place it on just two words, though. “This is she.”
Another pause, and Lois had the impression that her caller was even jumpier than she was. “You probably don’t remember me…”
But that was enough. The whirr of the helicopter blades as Lex had reveled in his capture of her, a young woman with dark hair and a retro dress with a Pomeranian in her purse. The young woman who had risked Lex’s wrath to try to save the twins from the worst of Luthor’s machinations. “Katherine Kowalski,” and she smiled in spite of the day’s events. At least that much of her deal with the devil had come out well; Kitty was still alive.
The voice on the phone seemed to tense at the name. “I don’t go by that name anymore. And I never contacted anybody who knew me from … well, you know … until now. I really shouldn’t have now, but I just couldn’t turn a blind eye to this. But this will be the last you ever hear from me, okay? No matter what happens after this, Lois, I’m done.”
“You’re right, you shouldn’t have, but I’m so grateful you did," Lois said with a sigh. Her mind awhirl, she had unknowingly begun to pace, her hand reaching up to fidget with the locket around her neck. She instinctively knew that this phone call would mean a great deal in gaining enough ground to find Kala, but she couldn't help but worry about the fate of her savior. “And once you hang up, run. You said you saw the papers; they're not running everything that's happened. We got the bugs he placed out of the apartment and the police have been monitoring our phones to be sure they’re not tapped, but you know better than anyone else that you never know with him. The risk is just too high.”
A shaky laugh. “Don’t I know it. I’m only calling because I saw the news – your friend, the redhead, almost got killed, just for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. There are rumors that they have one of your twins. Kala. That was the worst, knowing the way he treated them the last time. I tried to block it out, but I just couldn’t stop seeing their little faces. He’s coming after you again and you need to know what you’re up against. Or at least what I can tell you that he had planned before.”
Lois had to swallow, her heart contracting painfully. It killed her to have Kala’s name mentioned; the reminders of what the twins had gone through alone made her heart bleed. As for Lana, she was okay now – better than okay; she seemed to be the only person around with their head screwed on straight at the moment. But having seen her yesterday, soaked in blood with her sea-green eyes asking mutely why this had to happen to her, it was no wonder Lois felt guilt knife through her every time Lana was mentioned.
“He’s like that,” Katherine continued. “He doesn’t care – he’ll use anything and anyone to get to you and your man. And now he’s got your little girl. He’ll throw away a dozen lives to win one battle against … we both know who. He’s obsessed, crazy, and dangerous.”
Even closing her eyes didn’t make the nightmare images of the things Luthor had purred at her with their faces so close together at bay, the gun barrel against her cheek as he had gloated over his prize. The things he had threatened. “I know.”
The voice sounded both bitter and wise when she replied. “Not like I know it, thank God. But do you understand that he’ll keep coming until you stop him? Every time he backs away and you think it’s over, he’ll regroup and come after you, all of you, again and again, until you finally put a stop to it for good. And you know what I mean.”
An icy shiver rolled down her spine at that. It had been a voice in the back of her mind for years, one she had always hoped she could ignore. Until I kill him. Yes, Lois knew. Realistically, she’d always known. And she had known who it would fall to. “I understand that very well.”
“Good. In that case, I may be able to help you.” Another pause, in which Lois let herself begin to hope, and then Katherine spoke quickly. “He’s in Nevada; it’s where he’s got his research facility all set up for the crystals. I can’t tell you exactly where, because I don’t know…”
That old journalistic excitement rocketed through Lois’ veins like lightning. Nevada. Of course Nevada. Way back when it began, Luthor had been buying up huge tracts of desert in California and Nevada. That was right before he triggered an earthquake that would have made his cheaply-acquired land waterfront property – but Superman had intervened and Luthor’s scheme had been ruined. Could he possibly still own that land?
“The closest big city is Carson City,” Katherine was saying. “The lab is south of there, close to the California border. It’s hidden in the mountains – everything’s underground. There’s some little town not far away, but we never went there. He always made everyone go to Reno or Carson, so the locals wouldn’t notice.”
“That’s fine,” Lois said hurriedly, her heart hammering. “That’s enough to start a search, and you know I’ll have help. Thank you, Katherine, thank you so much…”
“I’m not done,” the other woman interrupted. “You need to be careful. Really careful. He’s totally obsessed – and he wants you for a trophy. You remember what happened the last time, right? When he…?”
Stomach churning, Lois remembered: the bruised look around Katherine’s eyes, the look of a woman driven so far into terror and despair that she was no longer even capable of fighting back; Luthor’s small, cold smile as he’d bragged about it, telling Lois he’d said the wrong name at a delicate moment; realizing just what he meant, the way his supposed girlfriend shied away from him in fear, not anger. Oh yes, Lois knew – and even if she hadn’t seen those things, she would have known when Luthor kissed her to seal their bargain. Even the memory made her mouth taste foul.
“I know, Katherine.” Steel lay under her voice. “I’ll be careful, but I’m getting my daughter back no matter what.”
There was a relieved sigh on the other line, although the anxiety in her voice was growing again. “Good. I’m sorry I couldn’t do more for the two of them. Now I have to go – remember.”
“Underground, somewhere south of Carson City. I won’t forget. Thank you, Katherine.”
“No, thank you,” the other woman said, and broke the connection.
Zod had been awake and listening when Schecter came down to get Kala, but he had made no move yet. He needed to gain the girl’s trust, but he also needed to keep his rebellion beneath Luthor’s radar for some time yet. It was simply too dangerous to make a stand now, when he was still unsure whether Kala Kal-El would be an ally or enemy. Better to let Luthor have his way, at least a little. He would undoubtedly terrorize the girl – he was one of those men who could not resist gloating in his own sense of power – and in doing so, Luthor would give her yet more reasons to ally with Zod. The Kryptonian smiled; it was so very pleasant to watch your enemies play right into your plans.
The girl, however… He would have to use caution. It was hardly difficult to seem a better choice than Luthor in the immediate moment, but if his long-term plans were to come to fruition, she had to trust him utterly. And that would be no small task. Eyes sliding almost closed, Zod turned his strategist’s mind toward securing that goal.
Maggie was mid-sentence when she saw Richard, Lana, and Clark emerge from the master suite out of the corner of her eye. Lois hung back – not surprisingly. All things considered, it was likely best. She’d had no time to think about what she’d just learned; there were too many arrangements to make. She was fairly certain the others felt the same way. “I know some of you can’t just go into lockdown,” Maggie continued as if she hadn’t noticed their entrance. “But I would like to see as many of you as possible is a secure central location. I’m not sure yet where that will be…”
That was when Lana spoke up, making everyone’s eyes fly to her. “What about Smallville? That should be considered an option.”
The policewoman let that idea roll around in her mind for a moment. It wasn’t what she’d had in mind, as there really was no police force there to speak of, but it could actually work. Lana continued, her thoughts in the same vein as Maggie’s own, “Luthor will find it very hard to get any of his people into town without everyone being warned. With a population that small, anyone new is noticed immediately. I know my folks don’t have the space, but Martha Kent does. I’m sure she’d be willing to help us, too, especially to protect the children. Clark?”
It was easy to tell that Clark was still struggling to digest the current shift in events, a storm of emotion simmering under that normally calm demeanor. “I’ll call her,” he said almost too firmly, his voice still rough. “I’m sure she’ll take the kids, and probably anyone else who wants to go.” No one missed the fact that he looked at Jason when he spoke.
Jason’s response was utter disbelief, gaping at his father while Elise winced. Hurt and the ghost of anger colored both his face and voice when he protested, “Wait. No way, Dad. I’m not staying behind – I’m going, too!” Seeing no change in Clark’s expression, he stood up with a scowl and pressed his point. “You can’t do this! She’s my sister. I need to be there!”
So focused was he on Clark that it startled him when Richard spoke up, clearly feeling sympathetic but just as unwilling to budge. “And Luthor will kill you if he gets half a chance. And we can’t take that chance, not with the stakes this high. Sorry, son, but no. I’ve got one kid missing; I’m sure that Luthor would only be too thrilled to have a pair again.”
“But…” Jason’s crushed look passed from his fathers to Lana, and saw on all three faces the look of absolute parental denial. His only hope at all was Mom and he still wasn’t sure how things stood there…
Lois came up the hallway fast and keenly focused. A predatory light glowed in her eyes, her posture straight and forceful. “I’ve got a lead on Luthor,” she stated baldly, daring someone to argue with her, and the misery of moments ago had been subsumed by new purpose.
“Spill,” Richard demanded, as Lois’ words galvanized the entire room.
Arms crossed tightly against her chest, Lois told them what she knew, only leaving out her source’s name and exactly what Kitty’s connection with Luthor was. There was no way she was going to betray that after the huge risk that the younger woman had taken.
Maggie listened carefully to everything Lois said before asking, “Are you sure this isn’t another setup? Are you sure that we can trust her information?”
“No, I’m not sure we can, but that’s because the info is ten years old. Who knows what he could have changed in that time? But it’s a lead and a better lead than anything we have at the moment,” Lois said succinctly, her façade firmly in place now. “She’s not one of his people anymore and she’s doing this with a chance of great personal risk on her part. Just trust me on that.”
“So why didn’t she tell us this before?” Clark asked, his eyes stony.
They all saw Lois start to tense up all the more, but she didn’t take the bait this time. “Because it involves the twins and this is the first time Luthor’s tried killing my friends instead of just us.”
Maggie took that moment to verbally place herself between the two of them. “It’s worth checking out the lead, but be careful – it could still be a trap.”
“Everything could be a trap.” That was Richard, and he gave a fatalistic little shrug. “This is Luthor we’re talking about. But it’s all we have.”
“And it fits,” Lois said. “Luthor did buy up a bunch of land in California and Nevada. I was investigating that when he rerouted the missiles, trying to knock California off the map.”
Richard was nodding gravely, his mind going a mile a minute. “I remember reading that one. So when are we heading to Nevada?”
Before anyone to comment further, Clark spoke up and put an end to that possibility immediately. “You’re not. I’d rather you all stay here, or in Smallville. The fewer of us involved, the better. This is too dangerous.”
In the silence that followed, Lois drew herself up a little taller and made herself look him directly in the eye. No matter what bad feelings where between them at the moment, no one in that apartment was surprised at what Lois said next. “Like hell. I’m going and you know better than to tell me I’m not. Don’t waste your breath.”
“Lois…” By the tone of his voice, Clark was barely reining in his temper, giving Lois a dark look.
She ignored the warning to stare directly into his eyes, as stubbornly determined now as she had been beaten and guilty before. Every inch of her shouted that she wasn’t going to back down. Lois could bear his fury of moments ago, much as it hurt her, but she simply could not stand aside and let him go after their daughter alone. Chin up, she interrupted him. “Don’t. I’m going, and if you try to leave me behind, I’ll follow you. And we both know that it’ll be that much easier for him to try to take one of us if we’re separated. Do you want to take that chance?”
Richard stirred, but Lana spoke before he could. “So when are you two leaving?” The casual way in which she said it made Richard turned to look at her, his expression puzzled. She seemed to take it as fait accompli that only Lois and Clark would be going, when she’d been talking yesterday about never giving up. He would have protested, but he saw her give him the briefest glance, and the look in her eyes said play along. Richard trusted her and always had; if Lana had walked up to him with a blindfold and a chainsaw, he would have known there was a reasonable explanation. That faith in her quieted his objection, and he watched how Clark took her reply.
“Tonight,” Clark said with a glance at the other man, still in that clipped tone none were used to hearing. “The sooner, the better.” His eyes rested on Lois again, his face still inscrutable, and added in that same controlled tone, “I still need to call Ma, and you need to get in touch with Superman, let him know where we’re going.”
Her eyes never left his. “Fine. That shouldn’t be difficult,” she replied with the same cool civility. In the end, it was Clark that looked away first. And Lois forced herself to ignore just how much it relieved her to break away from his gaze.
The moment her back was to him, she felt a hand on her shoulder. For the first time since knowledge of the deal was aired to the rest of the family, Lois found herself facing Maggie. Her heart sunk even further at the rebuke she fully expected from someone who knew her so well. The cop just watched her silently, and Lois knew that she was trying to read her, make sense of what everyone had heard. They had always understood each other so well. Finally Maggie gave a little nod and only said, “I need to talk to you before you leave, Lane.”
“So do I.” That was Lucy, coming forward through the crowd without hesitation, and before anyone else could do anything, she was in Lois' arms and hugging her big sister hard enough to hurt her ribs. “I know I can’t talk you out of this, Lo, and I don’t know how you kept from telling us,” the blonde whispered. “But please be careful. You’re all I have left.”
Lois returned the hug fiercely, hating the thought that her sweetheart of a sister might be in danger, hating even more the wounded look she’d seen in Lucy’s eyes when the younger woman heard the news about Lois’ deal with Luthor. “I will,” she murmured, kissing Lucy’s temple. “I have a vested interest in coming home. Don’t worry, Luce. It’s going to be okay.” Her eyes flicked up then, over Lucy’s shoulder to see Jason watching her with such heartfelt sympathy that she almost broke down again. Instead, she took a deep breath and just gave him a loving look. At the moment, it was the only answer she had for the questions she could see in those blue eyes.
Meanwhile, Clark had slipped away from all of them. He’d seen the sick surprise in his friends’ faces, and knew he’d shattered their ideal of him. Sweet, gentle Clark, always kind, always forgiving, the perfect man in an extended family of very good men – and they’d just seen him practically frothing at the mouth in rage.
He went out onto the balcony, out of sight of all those accusing eyes, and leaned against the wall. He had to call Ma, and very soon, but right now what he needed most was just to calm the storm of emotions raging through his soul.
Anger, yes, but anger was something he’d been controlling all his life. Other kids might have been able to kick a fence post or punch a wall when angry, but not Clark; even in his turbulent teens he’d had to cultivate an astounding level of self control. Restraint, always restraint, curbing the impulse to raise his voice, reining in his temper, because once he’d lost control of those it was far too easy to progress to slamming doors, and he always felt so very foolish afterward, when he had to help Pa hang a new door.
His anger – his rage – at Lois had gotten out of hand so quickly because he’d trusted her. Clark had given countless lectures on that topic at work, when nosy reporters told him he should keep a close eye on Lois with the world’s most intimidating competition flying around overhead. “Why should I worry?” he’d said with a flippant shrug. “If I didn’t trust Lois, trust her absolutely and completely and in all situations, what would be the point of marrying her? Why, our marriage wouldn’t be real if I couldn’t trust her.” He’d smiled and sent them all on their way, and it had been his little joke with Lois, since Clark was always his own worst competition.
His faith in Lois had been shaken during this business with Eastlake – and no, Clark hadn’t forgotten the too-familiar glances, the shared laughter, merely pushed all that to the back of his mind to deal with more important things. But that disquieting little tremble was nothing compared to the bombshell that had rocked the foundations of his entire world.
Lois had lied to him, kept a secret of that magnitude, for ten years – the entire length of their marriage. Even during the best times, when their life together seemed to be one long swath of shimmering brightness, golden as sunlight, even then she had been hiding this deal with Luthor. It felt like finding an ugly worm eating away at the hidden center of a blossoming rose: horror and disgust and outrage that what seemed so sweet and perfect could conceal such rot.
And perhaps he could have done what Lana asked, putting aside betrayal and wrath for the sake of finding his daughter, if it hadn’t been Luthor that Lois had dealt with. Clark’s hand rose to his chest, rubbing at a spot nearly to his right shoulder. He had other enemies, and many were the stuff of nightmares, but only Luthor had scarred him, not once but twice. He winced as his fingers felt the rougher skin there beneath his shirt, where the kryptonite-laced bullet wound had healed imperfectly. That wound had a partner – one might say a twin, though not identical – low on his back, where the kryptonite shiv had sliced its way in.
Lois – who had leaped, handcuffed, into the ocean to save him when he’d been shot, though Clark was too angry at her to think of it at the moment – had often kissed those scars when they lay in bed, as if the reverently tender touch of her lips could heal them. Clark had been moved by the gesture, loving her for making something profound out of those all too visible reminders of the hell they’d been through. Now he had to ask himself if perhaps she hadn’t been honoring him with those kisses, but trying to assuage her own guilt instead. When she kissed those places so slowly, had she thought of the bargain she’d struck with the man who’d made those scars?
Either one of those could have been fatal, if not for a large dose of luck. Had the bullet fragmented a little more, or the shiv splintered a little further, even the combined efforts of everyone who’d tried to save him would have been in vain. Death by kryptonite was a horrible fate to imagine, and Clark had been far closer to it than he ever wanted to be again, thanks to one man, one merely mortal man with no superpowers other than his diabolical genius.
Clark took a shuddering breath, knowing the real reason he’d been so furious at Lois. She had made her bargain with the only human being on the planet who truly terrified him. That Superman should find his heart racing in fear of the coming confrontation seemed unthinkable, but it was all too true.
Give me strength to get through this, he thought, and tried to compose himself to call Ma and ask too much of her, yet again.
And yes, that's the worst it's going to get. Everyone can breathe a sigh of relief. Now, it's all about the fallout and the warpath. The Lane-Kents are on the move.