This chapter is a little shorter than we usually do, but we also did four fics this month despite a VERY busy schedule, so I count myself ahead that this guy even got out. After this chapter, we'll be back on our usual schedule (we hope) and you'll have the next chapter next week. It may be another short one, but bear with us. Christmas took a toll on both of us. Look for the second fic for this weekend shortly; I'm just waiting for them to post it at BlueTight's Planet Forums first. :D
A belated MERRY CHRISTMAS and an early HAPPY NEW YEAR, all! We love you and want only good things for all of our fans and friends in the year to come. I think we all deserve it after last year!
Sebast slid as far down in the seat as he could go. Inspector Sawyer wasn’t yelling at him, but then, she didn’t need to. One withering look, and he was cringing in anticipation of a lecture. But Sawyer didn’t lay into him; she led him to her car in total silence, having decided to drive him home herself. Apparently no one trusted him not to light out for Nevada the moment their backs were turned.
Already that morning he’d managed to get bawled out by Lucy Troupe and Loueen White. The lecture was worse because Lucy couldn’t reach her sister’s mobile phone; she left three messages about the incoming kids before giving up. Even Nora and Joanna looked at Sebast like he’d lost his mind. And then he found out they were handing him off to the cop.
Kala loved her aunt, but Sebast was just a little leery of her. She had that look, the one that said she knew every bad thing you’d ever done, and none of it surprised her because she’d seen it all before. Kind of like his mom, but with the added threat of being able to arrest people.
Some people were hot-tempered, and they spouted off when they were mad. Sebast could handle those kinds of people; he was one, and so was Kala. Others got colder as they got angrier, until every word, every glance, had frost on the edge. Sawyer was like that, and it scared the hell out of Sebast because he didn’t know anyone who could be so pissed off and so contained at the same time.
Sitting in the passenger seat of her car, Sebast felt like he was in an industrial refrigerator. Sawyer was angry at Richard and Lana and Jason and Elise, too, but he was the one in front of her, so he got to see the fury in her eyes. Oh yeah, whatever she intended to tell his parents was going to get him grounded for a year.
They turned into the driveway of his house after what felt like an age, and Sawyer put the car in park. She made no move to get out, and Sebast began to hope that she wasn’t going to talk to his parents. Slowly, so as not to seem too presumptuous, he opened his door.
Then she turned to him, and her eyes were icy. Her voice was tightly controlled, soft even, when she said, “For your sake, I hope they both come back in one piece.”
Sebast flinched. The fact that Jason and Elise were heading off into actual danger had gotten swept aside by Jason’s passionate insistence on finding his sister. Sawyer’s reminder was the guilt equivalent of a nuclear warhead, and Sebast scrambled out of her car before she could say anything else to him.
“What’s our percentage?” Luthor asked, watching the stock prices flicker on his computer screen.
Mercy stood behind him. “Nineteen. And rising. We ought to have another five percentage points by the end of the week, if our man at Eagle Capital Investments will come through for us. When we reach thirty percent, we’ll have a controlling interest in the Daily Planet.”
“I’d like more than that. If we can top fifty percent, we own the paper. I’d like to see White’s face when someone tells him.”
“We could go that high, but they’re on to us. The share price is rising faster than expected, which means the principals are trying to increase their holdings.”
Luthor grinned. “Let them try. I’ve got more money than White.”
“The designer’s loaded,” Mercy warned.
“She’s one woman. I’ve got five capital investment firms dancing to my tune. Besides, according to FAA records, she’s busy. She and her husband are heading west.”
“They’re coming here?” Mercy’s tone was plainly disbelieving. By now, the only thing on Richard or Lana’s minds should have been burrowing in somewhere safe. Hadn’t it been made plain to them that they would be killed if they interfered?
“It could be a ruse,” Luthor replied. “The long-distance watchers tell me that most of the family decamped early this morning. There aren’t that many places they could go, so I sent someone to check on the Kents in Smallville. Haven’t heard back yet, though. Either the younger Whites are trying to confuse us, or they really are coming out here.” He chuckled softly at the thought.
Mercy, however, bit her lip. The softest person in the group, their weakest link, had already killed Hope. And now, instead of being frightened away, the family was regrouping and going on the offensive. This was not going to be as easy as they’d planned.
“What about your ‘daughter’? Have you gotten through to her yet?” Luthor asked.
“Giselle is still in police custody,” Mercy told him. “That Sawyer has taken a personal interest, and is keeping a very close eye on the girl. We’ll get to her eventually, though.”
“Good,” Luthor said. “And since we’ve saved the best for last, how are Kala’s language lessons coming along?”
Mercy shrugged. “Zod has disabled the monitoring devices in his room, but she spent enough time there yesterday to indicate she’s actually working on it. The girl is a loose cannon. Too useful to kill, too powerful to harm directly. And she seems to be toeing the line – for now. I’d recommend playing it subtle, leaving her alone for the day and just monitoring her.”
“I’ll go along with it, but I expect to see some commitment from our young guest.” Luthor’s eyes gleamed. “After all, she suffers from her father’s fatal weakness: she’s far too attached to people in her life.”
“You can open your eyes now,” Richard teased. “I’d think after ten years of flying with me, you’d learn to trust my judgment.”
Lana cautiously opened one eye and breathed a sigh of relief before replying. “Richard, I love you. I trust you. I’m glad that your pilots’ association provides a list of water landings in every state, and very grateful that even Utah has them. However, this lake looked awfully short to me.”
Whenever she took that too-correct tone with him, Richard started to chuckle. Lana had heard the aphorism about there being no old, bold pilots, and any risky-seeming maneuvers still made her close her eyes and wince. Richard didn’t consider himself a bold pilot, though, and if she were totally honest with herself, he really wasn’t. He was scrupulous about his preflight checklist, he always double-checked his routes and approaches, and he never flew in dubious conditions.
The landing here was a little short, by her standards anyway. “It’s not that bad,” Richard told her. “You’re just used to landing on Hob’s Bay. At least this is still water.”
“True. And at least this is our last stop before Reno.” Lana stretched, wincing slightly, and was glad that they’d be situated soon. It was getting close to time for another pill. She’d never been a wimp about pain, but the deep throb in her left hand was what her mother used to call the ‘crazy-making’ kind of pain. It just didn’t stop, except with medication.
“Got any brilliant plans for finding Lois and Clark?” Richard was relaxed as usual after a flight, leaning back in his seat, with that gleam in his eyes that she knew so well.
“Oh, I’m pretty sure they’ll find us before long,” Lana replied with a grin. “Clark’s going to be absolutely furious.”
“You get to talk to him.” With that, Richard stood up, and they both made their way out of the plane. Lana went inside with Richard and bought both of them coffee while he paid for the fuel, then talked to him for a bit while he refueled the plane.
It was going to be a few minutes, though, and they had a couple more hours in the air before reaching Reno. “I’ll be right back,” Lana said, and kissed Richard’s cheek before heading around the side of the building. The interior had been scrupulously clean, so hopefully the restrooms would be as well.
Lana reached for the door to the ladies’ room, but before she could touch it, it opened. She took a step back, startled, but then the girl leaving the restroom looked up, and Lana felt her heart leap into her throat.
“Oh shit,” Elise yelped, then slammed her hand over her mouth when she realized what she’d said and who she’d said it to. It was almost comic – except that Lana was tired, hurting more than she wanted to admit, and now she had to deal with this. She grabbed Elise’s arm and headed back to the plane without speaking a word to the girl, her much-praised patience close to boiling over.
Richard did a double-take when he saw the pair, but Lana had done some quick mental calculations, and she knew Elise couldn’t be alone. Jason wouldn’t have allowed her to go without him. Someone had been in his bed with Kristin this morning; she’d checked right before they left. Jason had inherited both his mother’s headstrong, willful ways and his father’s stubborn determination, and that was not a combination that would submit meekly to his parents’ wishes. However, she intended to make him wish that he had. This was no game; lives were at stake. “Jason Lane Kent, get out here!” Lana snapped.
Richard turned around as the boy climbed out of the plane. Jason moved deliberately, facing them with his head high and defiance written all over his features. But not the surly, ill-tempered defiance that sometimes flared on his twin’s face; this was a look that gave Lana pause for its steadiness. It was almost noble…
“What the hell did you think you were doing?” Richard was saying, looking from Jason to Elise in disbelief. “Jason, you promised me you wouldn’t do this!”
Jason was being unrelentingly obstinate. “I promised you I wouldn’t try to get to Nevada after today. I never said anything about hitching a ride.”
“Well, I hope you’re happy.” Richard hung up the fuel pump with a sharp gesture. He didn’t often get mad at the kids; he was more often amused by them and always forgiving of their mistakes. But not right now. “Whatever your reasons for coming out here, I guess I can understand, Jason. But you had no right to drag Elise into it. Not least because you’ve just made me a felon. You know it’s against the law to take a minor across state lines without parental permission? And her parents aren’t even in the country!”
“I didn’t give him a choice,” Elise cut in, and Lana shook her arm.
“Then you’re more a fool than he is.”
“He needs me, he’s not right in the head and none of you can even see it, and I wasn’t going to let him do this by himself,” Elise countered, and that sounded exactly like Lana’s own surety that Clark and Lois needed her.
Which, in her present state, only infuriated her more. The kids were probably going to ruin her own argument with Clark. “If you wanted to help him, you should have convinced him to stay home,” Lana said coldly.
“No chance of that,” Jason said. “You can’t get rid of us. We don’t have any ID, so you can’t put us on a plane. And even if you do, the minute you turn your backs we’ll be headed out here again. I’m going to find my sister.”
Richard started to speak but was interrupted by a startled yelp and the sudden appearance of Lois and Superman. “Just what do you think you’re doing?” he thundered at Jason.
Elise’s jaw dropped open. The girl had never seen him up close; she’d been told off-handedly that he was the twins’ godfather, and she knew that he was helping search, but she’d never actually been in his presence. And with him in a cape-swirling fury, that presence was immediate and impressive.
And dangerous. Clark had barely noticed her before launching into his son, and Lana met Lois’ eyes. Both of them knew he was perilously close to revealing his secret. “I’m going to find my sister,” Jason was replying, and hid voice was just as steady.
“You were told to go to Smallville, where you would be safe,” Superman replied. “This is not a game, Jason – Luthor will kill you if he catches you!”
“Kala’s my twin!” Jason was beginning to raise his voice. “I promised her I’d always come rescue her, and you taught me to always keep my promises!”
That was enough; any second now father and son were going to blow their cover, with Elise staring goggle-eyed at them both. But before Lana could speak up, Lois intervened. “Superman, you’re absolutely right, and I intend to have words with my son. But I think you might want to go back and get his father for this dressing-down?”
Well said, and Clark finally seemed to notice Elise. “You have a point, Ms. Lane,” he said with effort. “But I will inform Mr. Kent of what’s going on here during the flight.” With that he turned and fixed his blazing eyes on Lana. “Including the Whites turning up in Utah when they were supposed to be in Kansas.”
He disappeared, leaving Jason and Elise facing Richard, Lana, and Lois. “This is just wonderful,” Lana sighed. “If you’ll all excuse me a moment, I need some medication if I’m going to deal with this.”
The hunter was careful. He had placed his blind at the edge of a field, and camouflaged it with a few boughs of the red cedar trees that formed the windbreak behind him. By his side was a .22 rifle perfect for hunting coyotes, and in the field before him was a remote-controlled predator call that could perfectly imitate an injured rabbit. At the moment, though, the hunter was only using his spotting scope to canvas the area.
The setup looked like any one of several out-of-town hunters presently staying in the Smallville area. Most of them were deer hunters, but coyote made for an interesting change of pace, and there was no limit or season on the predators. The only difference was the fact that the hunter was aiming his powerful spotting scope through a gap in the trees across the field – directly at the Kent farmhouse.
Peering through the scope offered a close-up view of the back porch, where a cute blonde was standing, watching over a gaggle of kids. The hunter tried to get an accurate description, but it wasn’t easy. The brisk chill in the air made the kids frisky, and all of them were bundled up. All he could tell was that they seemed to be mostly twelve-year-olds or younger. There were no signs of the teenagers he was supposed to look for, but they might be indoors.
A light tap on his shoulder startled him badly. No one else should have been out here – but then, the elaborate cover ought to fool whatever idiot farmer had just snuck up on an armed hunter. Turning with a friendly smile, the hunter saw only his empty blind. Weird. His mind was playing tricks on him; maybe it was the cold.
Turning back around to look through the scope again, his chin met a gloved fist, and the last thing Luthor’s spy saw was a wolfish smile beneath the cowl. “One down,” Bruce murmured into his communicator, and dragged the unconscious man away.
Lois crossed her arms and stared at Jason, unable to say a single word to him. He’d just proven how very much like her he was, and a small part of her admired his determination and sneaky cleverness. A much larger part was terrified for him, and furious that he’d brought Elise. She was a wonderful girl, and Lois was glad to see the two kids talking again. But the very last thing she wanted was a … well, a civilian in the middle of this war with Luthor.
Jason was standing with his head up, his brow furrowed, and his eyes blazing. He had absolutely no intention of giving in, meeting each of the adults’ gazes as they waited for Clark to return. Only with Lois was he anything other than stubbornly defiant; his eyes held a glimmer of pleading.
Well, her sweet boy was about to find out that Mom wasn’t a sucker for puppy eyes. “I’d say I can’t believe you, Jason, but I can,” Lois told him. “And I’m shocked that you of all people didn’t think for ten minutes before you pulled off a hare-brained stunt like this.”
His jaw dropped; clearly the last thing he expected was for Mom to set herself against him. She didn’t have much time to pity him, though, as Clark returned in only moments. He didn’t even acknowledge Elise, and gave Jason a scathing look. “You’re going home, son.”
Jason took a deep breath and said shakily, “No.”
“It isn’t up for debate, Jason,” Clark warned.
“You can’t put us on a plane,” Elise interjected. “We don’t have any ID. And even if you do send us home, we’re just going to turn around and come back out here.”
“I won’t stay out of it,” Jason informed them.
“I’ll ask Superman to fly you, then, and have your Aunt Maggie put you into protective custody,” Clark growled.
“She’s too busy to follow me around,” Jason said. “And she won’t lock me up. Dad, I’m not going.”
“You have no right…” Clark began, and his own son cut him off with a flash of the temper that marked him as Lois’ child.
“I have every right. She’s my sister, and I’ve saved her before – saved her when no one else could, not even Superman. I promised Kala I’d never leave her, and just because she walked away on her own doesn’t negate that promise.” When it seemed like Clark was about to interrupt, Jason raised his voice to add, “And I’m not sure you and Mom can find her, the way you’ve been. You’re supposed to be a team, not fighting each other all the time. How are you going to search for Kala if you can barely be civil for more than ten minutes? I’m not just talking about New Year’s, either, even though that was a train wreck of a night.”
Clark had no answer for that, and Lois saw how taken aback he was by their perceptive child. She hadn’t realized either quite how aware Jason was of the problems between them – although New Year’s Eve was the most recent and obvious argument, he apparently knew about the estrangement and resentment that had been going on much longer.
Instead of answering the boy, Clark turned to Richard. “Take the kids home, and stay in Smallville where you’ll be safe.”
Lois caught her breath, and saw Lana doing the same. Clark very rarely gave an order, except as a parent or as part of his position as International Editor, but none of them could doubt the firmness of his tone. And unlike Elise, Richard knew exactly who was ordering him around. Clark had been his idol before the two men were friends, the iconic shield symbol painted on both wings of every plane Richard had ever owned.
Richard crossed his arms, looked the taller man in the eye, and replied simply, “Make me.”
That took all of them by surprise. “What?” Clark asked.
“I said ‘make me’,” Richard told him. “I didn’t fly out here to get sent home like an annoying little brother trying to tag along to the movies. I’m here because you need me, whether you know it or not. Jason’s got a point – Lana and I both know you two haven’t been at your best lately. And while I totally agree that the kids need to go home, the simple fact is, you can’t force me to leave.”
Of course, Clark could force them to leave; as Superman, he could haul them both to Smallville and dump them there. But what Jason had said was even truer of Richard and Lana. They were adults, and could not be prevented from coming back to Nevada as many times as Clark sent them back.
Poor Clark looked stunned. Though he rarely made demands, he was used to the few commands he gave actually being followed. To be met with such defiance from an old friend as well as his normally obedient son was more than he could handle. “While I appreciate the sentiment, Richard, you’ve already come too close to getting killed for my comfort. I want you and Lana and the kids safe in Smallville – this is my fight, and Luthor takes no prisoners.” Lois shot him a glare; that was too close to revealing the secret!
Richard sighed, and Lois saw the pain in his eyes before he answered. “Clark, my man, it’s my fight too. Kala was my daughter before she ever even met you. I’m not going to sit on my thumbs while that maniac has her, so just give it up.”
That stung, and everyone winced. Richard had never made an issue of the fact that he’d been the twins’ dad before their real father returned to the planet. He’d been noble about the whole thing, a shining example of the heart that beat beneath his irreverent, jocular exterior. In giving up Lois, the man who became the prankster of their group had shown such courage in putting the twins’ needs before his own that Superman felt awed by his actions. And he had never, ever called Clark on it, never reminded him even obliquely that he’d failed his obligations as a father.
Until now. And it was plain on his face that to say such a thing to his friend hurt him almost as much as it hurt Clark.
“She was six years old when I met her, and I love her as much as I love Kristin,” Lana said quietly. Holding up her bandaged hand, she continued, “I know very well how far Luthor will go. But we’ll go farther than he will. She’s our child, and he doesn’t stand a chance against us. All of us – we made a pretty good team the last time he tried messing with this family, and we weren’t even really a family then.”
Only Lois noticed the absorbed way Elise looked at each of them. They all tended to downplay the events of ten years ago, the crisis that had forged them into a single family in spite of all the factors against them. It wasn’t common for a woman to consider her husband’s former crush to be one of her closest friends, or for a man to be perfectly content with his kids calling his wife’s ex-fiancé ‘Daddy’. The Lane-Kents and the Whites only gave the most superficial explanations for the current situation, not wanting to tread too close to the secrets they kept. Elise had heard only whispers, and what she was seeing now clearly fascinated her. Lois made a mental note to be extra careful about what she said in the future; the girl was just a little too smart for her own good, in this case.
Stymied at last, Clark turned wounded eyes on Lois. The plea in his gaze was clear: he wanted her to bail him out, argue down Richard and Lana and the two kids. On the one hand, it was gratifying to have him turn to her after he’d been cold and formal ever since they left Metropolis; she’d stayed up the entire night working her leads, trying to find any scrap of information she could on Luthor’s activities in Nevada, and he had barely even bothered to check in with her.
On the other hand, Lois was worn out, sick of all the fighting and arguing and the relentless tangle of guilt in her heart. She had nothing left to refute Richard’s arguments, no razor-sharp wit to send him and Lana and the kids scurrying back to Smallville. And if she were completely honest, she wanted them here – not the kids, but Richard and Lana could insulate her from the worst of Clark’s anger. They still seemed to trust her, even if they couldn’t support her actions.
She sighed heavily. How come I have to make all the bad decisions? “Screw it. Let them stay; it’s easier than trying to ship them home. And they’ll be safer where we can keep an eye on them. That does not mean I’m happy with you, Jason Garen.”
Kala was quickly learning to watch the clock when she went for her language lessons. It was hard, bottling up all her anger and fear so she could still function in her enemies’ lair, and these long talks with Zod were a welcome relief. She could get absorbed in Kryptonian history, until the cadence of his voice and the clarity of his description washed away her current circumstances.
And those circumstances were growing less comfortable all the time. At this morning’s breakfast, a few of the security guys had cat-called her, making suggestions as to what they’d do to avenge their injured friends. Kala had faced them down with an icy glare, but when they showed up again at lunch, her heart hammered loud enough for Zod to hear it across the compound. The General wasted no time on words; he had merely stared at the offenders until they went away. “Humans,” Zod had scoffed.
With him around, Kala had grown confident enough to stalk haughtily through the cafeteria. She had matched her pace to Zod’s as they returned to his room. Between the soothing artificial sunlight and the engrossing conversation, the next few hours were golden.
“The ultimate failures of Krypton were arrogance and apathy,” Zod said. They had begun discussing recent history, and Kala leaned forward, her eyes bright. “Arrogance, that the Council assumed nothing could shake them from their exalted place in life, that their luxuries and very lives could never be in jeopardy. And apathy, that those in power would rather rest upon their laurels than try to disprove Jor-El’s theories. They threatened him to obtain his silence. Von-Dah claimed to have refuted his conclusions, but no one could be bothered to check her equations or his. Her results were more pleasing to the Council, so she was believed and Jor-El was vilified.”
“I never thought I would hear you defend him,” Kala said, keeping her tone respectful. “This is Jor-El, after all.”
Zod leaned back in his chair and looked at her calculatingly. Kala hated it when people gave her that look, the one that said they were trying to figure out if she was smart enough or mature enough to understand what they were about to say. She sat up straighter, put her shoulders back, and met Zod’s gaze steadily. Go on, hit me with your best shot. Just try pulling that ‘in a few years you’ll understand’ bullshit with me.
“This may surprise you,” he began, and then added, “or then again, it may not. Your grandfather and I were once close friends. It is because of that friendship, the mutual respect, admiration, and fondness we once shared, that I came to hate him with every fiber of my soul.”
Kala considered for a moment. Zod was claiming to hate Jor-El mere moments after essentially saying that the other man could have saved the planet if only the Council had listened to him. “Explain,” she suggested.
Zod’s eyes grew distant as he answered. “It was Jor-El who discovered the Phantom Zone and the means of entrapping a person within it. And it was he who, when I and my compatriots stood trial, cast the final vote. The Council considered imprisonment in the Phantom Zone to be a momentous thing, equivalent to the death penalty, yet without the stigma of actually taking a life. Therefore they required that a sentence must be unanimous. Every Council member would have had to declare us guilty for the three of us to be cast into that nightmare.
“The rest had spoken. I was unsurprised by their votes; they feared me, rightly. I would have changed their very way of life, uprooted all that they knew, but had I been in command we would have survived the apocalypse. It came at last to Jor-El. He held the final vote. If he said we were not guilty, then we would have been spared. And he alone of all of them knew what the Phantom Zone was. He had been trapped there, briefly, in the discovering of it.”
Zod’s jaw tightened, his eyes burning with old rage, carefully nursed and hoarded against the onslaught of time. “And yet he still condemned me, his friend, his benefactor. After I used my position to aid him, all unasked; after I alone supported his theories, he sentenced me to eternal living death, and for that I shall never forgive him.”