As promised, Nick showed up precisely on time to pick up Elise and Sebast, and Lucy showed them out, giving both kids an extra hug and admonishing Nick to drive carefully. There was enough madness going on without adding an auto accident to the roster. Both Elise and Sebast said silent thanks that Ms. Troupe hadn’t shown any suspicion at their driver. It occurred to them that the plot could have been blown right then had Lucy not been distracted by the last few days’ events. All things considered, most of the family would find it pretty odd that they’d get a ride with someone they wanted to cut to ribbons only hours ago. Also, she paid no attention to the way Sebast had drawn up the hood of his jacket so it covered his freshly cut hair; the night was cold enough to warrant it.
The two teens slid into the backseat of the car gratefully and Nick headed down the driveway slowly, waving to the officer in the patrol car across the street. Once they were out of sight of the house, the two teenagers glanced at each other and exhaled their held breath. So far their luck was holding out. “You ready?” Nick asked, looking at them in the rear view mirror.
Sebast was looking out the back window now, taking in their surroundings. “Yeah, just about.” He would only have a few moments when the car was out of sight of both police officers stationed in the area, and Nick couldn’t slow down too much without raising suspicion. So the Latino boy looked for his mark intently, not really paying attention to anything else.
Until Elise startled everyone by saying into the tense darkness of the car, “I’m coming with you.”
For a moment, neither boy spoke in disbelief, the silence becoming deafening again. And then Sebast gave her a mystified look, scorn hiding his obvious worry. It was bad enough that he was going to do this, and knowing full well he was going to get caught. “What? Are you crazy? I’m only doing this so I can stand in for Jason. If you go too we’ll only have to hide you under the bed or something. There’s no reason for you going in, anyway, so…”
It was what came out of her mouth next that totally threw him for a loop. “I’m going with Jason,” Elise said succinctly. Sebast’s mouth dropped open in shock, and she hurried to finish. “Look, he’s not one hundred percent focused on a good day, and he’s half out of his mind right now. Do you really think he’s gonna be helpful when he gets to Nevada? I can at least keep him halfway on task.”
After his initial shock at her presumptuousness, Sebast had to consider that. Jason was something of a dreamer, but once he locked on to something, he could be very determined. “Elise, this is a bad idea. Do you have any idea what you’re about to get yourself into? I mean, this is some dangerous shit they’re doing. It’s bad enough that he’s going. And this is assuming Jase even agrees to it.”
“Sebast, it’s his sister. And everyone else is gonna be all wrapped up in trying to find her. They won’t be able to keep an eye on him and stop him from … I dunno, stealing a tank and driving it straight up to wherever they have her. He’s obsessed.”
From the front seat, Nick finally ventured an opinion. “You know, he seems like the type to be a berserker when he gets mind focused on something. Like a bull with a red flag waving under his nose.” He sounded thoughtful, even a little guilty. “I mean, Kala told me that her brother was protective, but hell. In this kind of situation, can you blame him? She’s probably right.”
Elise was happy to accept support from any quarter at that point, and they were fast approaching the drop-off point. “See? Even he backs me up. Come on, Sebast; I have to go.”
Looking from her to the window, Sebast wrestled with his conscience. At the heart of it, he was furious that Elise might be able to go while he had to stay here. If anyone in this car deserved to be in on Kala’s rescue, it was Sebast. Elise was her friend, but he was her best friend. On the other hand, there was no way Elise could be the decoy. And she was a little bit right – maybe more than a bit – about Jason’s state of mind. Finally Sebast sighed in resignation. “Fuck it, I can’t stop you.”
Nick slowed down as they reached the curve in the road. “Good luck,” he said, and Elise heard a hitch in his voice. Then she and Sebast were jumping out of the still-moving car, running for the large hedge that would hide them as they made their way back to the Troupe house.
Headlights came toward them from the opposite direction, and they scrambled along the hedge. At the last second before the oncoming car rounded the curve, Sebast and Elise both dove through a gap in the bushes, Elise cursing softly when her jacket caught on a branch. Sebast knocked her flat beside the bushes as the lights swept over the spot they’d been standing a moment ago.
“Okay, you were right, this is really freaking dumb,” Elise muttered as they got up and dusted themselves off.
“Tough shit, Thorne. You’re stuck with it now,” Sebast groused, leading the way stealthily along the hedge. By following Jason’s directions, they made it back to the Troupe house without having to duck and cover again. Elise felt like she should have heard the Mission: Impossible theme playing all the way, and hummed a few bars of it very softly. That at least got a reluctant smile from Sebast.
Jason was waiting nervously at the window, and he quickly opened it to help Sebast inside. The sight of Elise shocked him speechless, and he only stared until she hissed, “C’mon, help me!”
“What are you doing?” Jason was staring at her as if he had just pulled a three-headed Hydra into the room.
The Latino boy couldn’t resist the smug smile he tossed at Elise as he came in behind her. It wasn’t like he hadn’t said the same thing himself. “Pretending to be a secret agent. And don’t you give me that look, mano. I couldn’t shake her, which means you’re stuck with her unless you can make her see sense.”
Jason’s blue eyes were stormy when he faced down his former girlfriend. “Hell with that, she’s staying right here,” he retorted with obvious vexation.
“I don’t know if it occurred to you, smartass, I can hear you,” Elise shot back, trying to keep her voice down. Neither spoke for a moment, trading furious glares that said more about the situation than words could. Elise was the one to break it. “And nobody asked you how you felt. Kala wouldn’t be cool with you getting yourself killed in the desert, right? So I’m going with you, like it or lump it.”
“No, you’re not.” Jason was adamant, and Elise was already getting wound up to give a terse response. But before he could continue berating her, there came a knock at the door.
All three kids stared at each other, wide-eyed. This room having originally been a living room, it had no closet, and the bathroom wasn’t a safe place to hide when anyone in the house might need to use it at any time. There was only one spot, and Sebast and Elise both dropped to the floor and scrambled under the bed at the same moment. Jason, meanwhile, bought them a few seconds by going to the door and opening it. “Yes?” he asked with what he hoped was innocent nonchalance.
Of all the things Bruce expected to happen today, Clark arriving at the Watchtower – with Lois beside him, wide-eyed from the flight – was the least probable. He and Diana went to meet Clark, neither of them entirely certain what was going on.
It was bad, whatever it was. Lois Lane looked defeated for the first time in her life, and Bruce had been interviewed by her. She wasn’t easily cowed, and she had a force of personality that Bruce truly admired. In their interview, she’d been completely unimpressed by his playboy persona, though amused by his flirting.
That had been years before she married Clark. When the JLA was formed, Lois had been more than willing to use her clout in the news world to keep the heroes’ identities secret – but she’d had to know who she was protecting. When she found out that Batman was actually Bruce Wayne, she’d laughed out loud, telling him that her opinion of him had just improved about five hundred percent.
The snarky, sharp-witted woman he knew had to have had experienced some sort of major emotional upheaval to look as haunted as she was. Other than a briefly sullen expression at the sight of him and Diana, Lois’ typically animated face was carefully blank. Bruce found that he didn’t like to see her with shuttered eyes.
J’onn, Dinah, and several of the others had arrived, and Clark was being high-handed as only he could. “This is a personal matter, and I don’t want any of you involved,” he told them.
Dinah’s eyebrows shot up, but Diana spoke before anyone else could. “As I told you before, we are your friends. Let us help you.”
Bruce saw an interesting thing, then. Diana had touched Clark’s arm lightly when she spoke, underscoring her words, but Lois’ hazel eyes sparked with anger at that slight contact. It was part of the Batman mystique to know everything about everyone, every well-hidden little secret, and Bruce knew perfectly well that Diana admired Clark.
He also knew that Clark was faithful to his wife, and either ignored or didn’t see the way any other woman looked at him. Apparently Lois wasn’t so certain, but then, she was too close to the situation to be objective. And Clark didn’t see the look in her eyes, either.
“I can’t,” Clark was telling Diana, and beneath his level voice was a fierceness that made her draw back slightly. “Luthor has my daughter. He’s already tried to kill my friends, and explicitly threatened everyone I love. He hasn’t hurt Kala yet, but if I involve you, he will.”
“If you don’t like the rules, change the game,” Diana said. All of them had faced many situations in which their opponents tried to force them to choose between one thing and the other, and it was never good to let the villain dictate the terms. She and Clark were both usually very good at it, although Bruce allowed that their powers might have something to do with that.
“Not this time,” Clark said, shaking his head. “He has my daughter. I won’t risk her. And don’t say he won’t kill the hostage because that leaves him with no leverage. He wouldn’t kill her. That would be too easy, and too quick, for him.”
Lois looked a little green at those words, but she was a reporter. She’d been a hostage before, and she knew what could happen. It was just the thought of it happening to her child that sickened her. Bruce, for all that his kids were adopted, knew precisely how she felt.
“I only came to keep you apprised of the situation,” Clark was saying, “and to ask one favor of you. If you want to help us, then please, keep an eye on the rest of my family. Most of them are going to be in Smallville by this evening. Luthor isn’t above murdering someone I care about just to distract me.”
“We can do that,” Bruce said quietly, forestalling all objections with a quick glance to the others. After all, he hadn’t actually agreed to stay out of the situation with Luthor as Clark had asked.
Kristin wasn’t sure why her parents wanted to talk to her and Jason together, but it probably wasn’t good. Not much was, at the moment. She held tightly to her mother’s hand as the three of them went to his room. Lana knocked, and Jason opened the door, looking a little scared. “We need to talk to you,” Mom was saying.
“About what?” Jason asked, leaning against the door frame. Her big brother was acting weird. It didn’t take much to know something was up, and Kristin looked at him curiously, trying to figure out what it was.
“Tomorrow morning,” Richard said, and Jason looked startled, then relieved. Wow, her big brother was all kinds of weird today – but with Kala gone, that was no surprise. Kristin’s life had been turned so upside down in the last few days that nothing surprised her, though.
“Okay.” He walked away from the door then, going to sit gingerly on the bed. Kristin hopped up alongside him, and he winced slightly when she did. She didn’t know that the bedsprings could only be a few inches above Sebast’s and Elise’s faces.
Lana sat down gingerly on the loveseat that had remained in the room, Richard leaning against it beside her. Jason watched them carefully, and Kristin followed his lead. It seemed like he needed the support.
But only a for moment, because Lana had settled herself and was speaking. “I know neither of you are going to like hearing this,” she began, “but Richard and I won’t be going with you to Smallville tomorrow.” She paused, clearly expecting an angry response, or perhaps tearful in Kristin’s case. The little girl just slid her small hand into Jason’s, her fingers tightening around his as she watched her mother worriedly.
Jason just looked at his stepparents consideringly. He looked almost like he was trying to figure out what Lana wanted him to do – should he be angry or resigned? It made him seem just confused and hesitant.
“We’re going to Nevada,” Richard said, with an air of waiting for a reaction.
Kristin had heard the grown-ups talking about Nevada when the rest of the family had been together. “Are you gonna go find Big K?” she asked, her voice hushed. That was the only reason they would leave her, and also why she wasn’t entirely surprised.
“Yes, sweetheart,” Lana said with a reassuring smile. It was clear that the day was wearing on her, but she was trying to look as though all was well. “Find her and bring her home.”
It was only when Jason spoke that Kristin saw the mulish way her brother was watching her parents. And she knew that that look, one she didn’t see often, meant that Jason was probably about to get himself in trouble. “I want to go with you.”
Heaving a frustrated sigh, the redhead got as far as, “Jason, we’ve already been over this. It’s not safe,” before Jason cut her off.
“I’d be safer than you would.” He raised an eyebrow, giving them a look Kristin knew well. He always did that when he was talking about something that she wasn’t supposed to know about. She knew something was up, some kind of secret the adults and older kids were keeping from her, but no one would explain it.
“Jason, you’re sixteen,” Richard told her brother. “I understand where you’re coming from, I really do. But this one’s for the grownups, okay?”
Lana added gently, “You’re also a little too close to it, emotionally. I’d be worried about someone finding a way to trap you. And sweetheart, we can’t lose you, too. If he had both of you…” She trailed off, and Kristin began to get frustrated. Why were they trying to have a conversation over her head, anyway?
“We’ll find her,” Richard spoke up, stepping forward. “C’mon, we’ve proven before that he doesn’t have a chance against all four of us. Jason, I promise you, we’re going to find her.” He laid a hand on Jason’s shoulder, and looked at him steadily. Then he gave Kristin a smile, and she could feel the corners of her mouth turning up a little. It was hard not to smile back at Daddy, even if he was telling her that he was going away.
Meanwhile Lana continued his argument, her eyes shadowed. “He doesn’t get to win, Jason. Not while we can do anything about it. And he knows his time is limited, or he wouldn’t have called your father.”
“I’m sorry, son, but you have to stay.” That was Richard, and his voice was final. Jason sighed heavily and looked down, letting them think he was cowed. Lana rose to kiss his hair, and whispered goodbye.
Richard bent to kiss Kristin’s forehead, and the little girl hugged him tight. She had gone quiet again, an unusual state for her, but she knew that arguing against her parents was futile. When they were set on something, they were immovable. Sometimes Clark or Lo-Lo could be wheedled, and if he wasn’t completely committed her own daddy was a complete pushover, but when Mommy laid down the law it might as well be carved in stone.
While Lana knelt to hug her, holding the little girl for a long time, Richard turned his attention to Jason. “Promise me you won’t try to get to Nevada after we leave tomorrow,” he said.
Jason looked up, startled, and seemed flustered for an answer. “Fine. I promise to stay right where I am in the morning – I won’t try to sneak out after you leave.”
Richard nodded, and held out his hand. “Shake on it.” Jason did, slightly mystified, and Richard continued, “Being a man instead of a boy means doing what you know is right, even if it hurts. Sometimes, Jason, that means you have to step aside instead of stepping up.”
Jason stood up and hugged Richard, but Kristin saw the guilty expression on his face and wondered about it. He did seem to be giving in a little too easily. She knew how close her big brother and sister were, and how they always looked out for each other. Right now, having her gone must be like a car alarm going off in Jason’s head, a constant blare of loss and warning that should have been driving him mad.
“Try to get some sleep,” Lana suggested. “You won’t have to get up too early, since you’re taking a chartered flight, but you don’t want to be late.”
“I wanna stay with Jason,” Kristin said suddenly. After she’d reluctantly let go of her mother, she hovered close to his side, her wide blue eyes worried. Jason was up to something, she could tell, and she wanted to know what it was. Little K thought that he needed her.
Before Jason could begin to form a protest, Lana said, “Okay, sweetheart.” Kristin laced her fingers through Jason’s again and squeezed, looking from her parents to him. Clearly, she needed the comfort of her brother. And how could he deny her?
“Yeah, you stay with me, Little K,” Jason said, hugging her.
“We’ve got a long flight and not much rest ahead of us,” Richard said, stroking Kristin’s auburn hair. “We’ll get some rest, too.” With a few more kisses and suppressed tears, they left. Lana turned at the door to look at Kristin and Jason, studying them for a moment as if engraving their images in her mind, and Kristin met her gaze just as solemnly.
After landing in Carson City, Lois and Clark went their separate ways. It was growing dark in spite of the three hours they’d gained by flying west, but they both had some time to search tonight.
He flew out to examine the surrounding area, hoping to spot Luthor’s facility. Lois reflected sourly that Luthor had picked a good spot to hide his laboratory. She remembered from her many conversations with Clark that metal deposits in the ground could play havoc with his x-ray vision; the differing densities made it hard for him to discern shapes. And here in Nevada, where the ground was littered with old mines and top-secret military installations, finding Luthor would be even more difficult.
Lois planned to use her own set of special skills. Tax records would have to wait until the morning, since it was growing late, but she could at least get a glimpse at the property rolls. That information was online, and all she needed was some place with free WiFi. The network wouldn’t be secure, something that she wouldn’t have chanced before, but at least it would be anonymous. And coffee, lots of coffee, preferably cheap coffee. There was no point in paying $4 a cup for the good stuff if she was going to be drinking it by the gallon and too absorbed in her research to taste it.
Settling in at a greasy spoon, Lois started browsing for any of Luthor’s known aliases. Any scrap of information might as well be gold, at this point. All the while, she kept herself alert to the fact that Luthor must be expecting them to come after him.
No sooner had Richard and Lana closed the door behind them than Jason pressed his ear against the door and closed his eyes in concentration, listening carefully to find out if Richard and Lana suspected him. For Kal, it would have been easy work to pick up any conversation in this neighborhood, but it was extremely difficult to hear much beyond the house itself, and that with intense focus. He was relieved, though, to find Richard’s hushed voice easy to find. “I have to admit, he’s taking it better than I thought.”
Then he heard Lana reply quietly, her tone fond. “He’s always had good sense.”
A small laugh then, also colored by affection. “Yeah, I think we both know he gets it from Clark.”
“And since Kristin’s staying with him…” Jason heard Lana trail off.
Richard’s tone was still playful, warm. “She’ll keep him from trying to sneak away and jump on a railroad car headed west, or something equally heroic.”
There was a pause before Lana spoke, her voice sounding suddenly so different that Jason frowned as he tried to place the mood. “That wasn’t how I meant to finish that sentence.”
Another pause before Dad spoke again, cautious this time. “You just got out of the hospital.”
“So be gentle. Just not too gentle.” Lana laughed, a low chuckle that made Jason blush furiously, and he hurriedly refocused his attention on the room he was in. Geez, gross! Every time! Why was it every time he tried to use super-hearing, he ended up horrified out of his mind? Shaking off the mere thought, he made himself concentrate on the boon this could be. At least they would be busy tonight, and not wondering any more about what he was doing.
Which he was going to have to figure out, and fast. Currently, Kristin was staring at him in a considering way, clearly not having totally fallen for his stellar performance. Furthermore, Elise and Sebast were still under the bed, had been for more than fifteen minutes, and were likely ready to kill him. “Hey, Little K,” Jason began, snubbing her nose. That usually made her laugh, but not right now. Now she just watched him peculiarly. “Can you keep a secret?”
His little sister tilted her head, considering the question before responding, “Is it a good secret or a bad secret?”
Trying to decide the best way to phrase it, he decided on, “An important secret.” That said, he waited for her answer.
Kristin wasn’t quite as obnoxiously curious as the twins had been when they were her age, but she still couldn’t resist the lure of a secret. She was also pretty good about keeping them, at least when it came to such things as birthday presents.
“Okay,” Kristin finally said with a small nod.
Jason knelt down in front of her and whispered, “I’m going to Nevada.”
Immediately Kristin’s smooth brow furrowed, full of worry. “But Jason! Mommy an’ Daddy said no! So did Lo-Lo and Clark. You’re gonna get in trouble!”
He had known that she wasn’t going to take this too well, but the way her lip quivered hurt him. Reaching out to catch her chin, he got her to look at him in the eye, although hers were somber. Choosing his words carefully, Jason told her, “I’m going anyway, so I can help them. Kala’s my twin; I can find her. Remember how we never used to like playing hide and seek because we couldn’t win against each other?”
Her nod was slow in coming, but it did come. If one twin was ‘it’, then the other would be the first one found and out of the game. Her expression fraught, she asked in a plaintive whisper, “Can I come?”
Jason sighed. He knew she would ask if he told her his plans and it hurt to turn her down. There was absolutely no way he’d ever chance her getting hurt; he could only hope she’d understand. “I wish I could bring you, Little K. Kala’s mad at a lot of people, but she’d never be mad at you. She loves you too much. But it could be dangerous – there are not-nice people where we’re going.”
Kristin just pouted up at him. “So how come you get to go?”
He almost laughed with relief. At least there was an easy answer for that one. “Because I’m bigger and stronger, and I can run faster,” Jason said regretfully. “I’m sorry.”
Elise’s voice startled Jason when she finally spoke up, even though he knew she was there in the room. “Besides, he’s gonna have some help, although I’ll throttle him if I have to do that again.” The brunette girl slid out from under the bed, fussing with her hair. “It’s a good thing your aunt’s a neat freak, or I’d be filthy.”
Sebast followed her, his expression making it clear that he thought everyone else’s decisions tonight were completely wrong. But he said nothing, just glaring at Jason as Kristin scampered to hug him and Elise.
“Elise, no one said you had to go,” Jason sighed, but he couldn’t bring himself to say he didn’t want her with him. That would be an outright lie. The problem was, he didn’t think it was safe for her to come. She would wind up being the only human, besides Mom, and the only person not privy to the family secret.
“I’m going, so deal with it,” she scolded, careful to keep her voice down. “Jason, you need someone to keep your head screwed on straight just going to school. If you’re gonna do something like this, you really need help. Quit trying to be macho about it.”
“I’m not… Fine. Now I see why Dad says that arguing with a woman is impossible.” Jason threw up his hands in exasperation. It was getting late, he was getting tired, and he really couldn’t think of a good way to discourage her without letting her know his particular qualifications for the search.
Elise just beamed triumphantly. On impulse, she pecked him on the cheek. “I knew you’d see it my way.”
Her expression perplexed, Kristin watched their exchange. Before Jason even had a chance to get tongue-tied, the little redhead asked without pretense, “Are you two boyfriend and girlfriend again?”
The three teens answered at the same time. Sebast said, “Yes,” Jason said, “No,” and Elise said, “Maybe.” They looked at each other, Jason’s expression amazed and hopeful, and then they desperately tried to suppress their laughter.
When they’d recovered, Kristin still looking perplexed, Jason chuckled, “Man, I needed that.”
“You and me both,” Sebast agreed before asking, “Okay, Jase, so what’s the plan?”
“Give it a little while so everyone has time to settle down, and Elise and I will stow away. Kristin, you’ll stay here with Sebast. He’s standing in for me, just in case your mom checks to see if I’m here before she leaves.”
“Which she will,” Sebast interjected. “Mrs. White, she knows what you’re thinking before you do. But we can psych her out. It’s a good thing I’m pretty light-skinned and you spend some time in the sun, Jason.”
Jason turned to Elise then. “It’s gonna be a long flight,” he warned. “I don’t know how long, but probably most of the day. And we’ll have to be really quiet whenever they stop for fuel. The cargo compartment isn’t well-insulated, so we’ll need blankets – there should be some in the chest of drawers.”
With that, they fell to planning, including Kristin as much as possible. The more the little girl felt like she was part of the operation, the more likely she was to keep silent when they needed her to.